The message is hand-sewn, blue letters embroidered on to a sliver of white silk, hidden in the layers of a taffeta skirt: “They take the girls”. By chance, this particular item has ended up on the fashion desk of The Post, employer of Casey Benedict, an investigative reporter. The skirts are made in Bangladesh. Casey immediately senses a story. But which girls and to where?
Holly Watt’s debut novel, To the Lions — also featuring Casey — was garlanded with praise and won the 2019 Crime Writers' Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. Once again, Watt delivers. The Dead Line is a cracking thriller that ranges from London and Greece to Washington DC and Bangladesh as Casey and her team start to unravel an international network of mass kidnap, corruption and dirty money.
A former award-winning investigative journalist, Watt worked on the MPs’ expenses scandal and the Panama Papers, and has written for several national newspapers. The Post is a fictional creation but the world Watt creates feels very real. The newspaper scenes are sharply drawn, complete with a shouty news supremo, foppish obituaries editor and a smart fashion maven whose sharp eye for detail helps keep the story moving.
The girls, we soon learn, are Rohingya refugees, displaced from Myanmar, eking out a living in miserable camps in Bangladesh before they are kidnapped and impregnated. Their wombs are the end point in a lucrative financial network that reaches back to the plush clinics of London’s Harley Street. Their clients — rich women, desperate for a child — know not to ask awkward questions.
Watt writes perceptively about the “actor factor” that every journalist experiences on an undercover investigation, “Dissolving into roles, day after day. A flick of eye shadow, and a touch of lipstick . . . And an answer, at last, to the question: Who am I today?” Casey is determined to get the story and expose injustice but is at times riven with doubts. There is a gripping scene in which she musters her courage before door-stepping a dodgy British diplomat in Washington DC. Nonetheless, the story drags a bit in the middle — 460 pages is quite a big ask of the reader. The book, and its cast, could have been pared back to a tighter read.
Watt travelled to Bangladesh before writing the book and she deploys her research with skill. Dhaka, where “green tuk-tuks slipped through impossible gaps, forcing their way past with shouts and squawks”, the Rohingya camps, the rotting hulks of beached ships are vividly and evocatively drawn. The air of menace, subtle at first, is steadily ramped up as Casey and her colleagues are drawn deeper into the criminal underworld.
Second novels are a tougher test than debuts. The excitement of the new has faded, the media buzz quietened. In The Dead Line, Watts passes with panache.
The Dead Line, by Holly Watt, Raven, RRP£14.99, 460 pages
Adam LeBor is author of the Yael Azoulay series of spy novels
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