In Stealing Elgar, Roger Conniston, supervisor of the crime scene analysis section, faces both personal and professional crises. He is up against a local crime boss, Hades, who is planning a major job, though no one is sure what to expect. In addition to Hades, Conniston is in conflict with DI Mark Weston who Conniston believes is a corrupt officer. The crime Hades is planning is complicated by the presence of ex-KGB agents and a remnant of the IRA. Roger must face down his enemies in crime and in the police and must decide what he values most in his life.
Theme of the Book
In both Roger and Hades the conflict between professional life and personal life is clear and present. Both face the loss of someone they love but react in radically different ways. The balance between pride, professionalism, and personal life presents the major thematic conflict.
What I Liked About the Story
For those of us who have spent hours watching the various versions of CSI, it is a joy to read a novel with a protagonist who can dispel the myths of instant DNA analysis and magical observations. Roger Conniston is a Scene of Crimes officer who lets readers see the reality of crime scene analysis. Reading the sections in Stealing Elgar in which Roger analyses crime scenes is an education, albeit an enjoyable one.
Roger, however, is not a cold scientist. He is human with strengths and weaknesses, doubts, and fears. Roger, newly promoted to supervise his section, is full of self-doubt concerning his ability to do his new job. He is dedicated but fears he is not much of a manager. His life is also complicated by his relationship with his wife, Yvonne, who suffers from crippling arthritis. While Roger still loves her, the reader can feel his frustration and his disappointment with his married life. Finally, Roger’s suspicion and dislike of DI Weston nearly dominates his daily life, making him a burden to both his colleagues and his supervisor.
An aspect of the story that is different from most other crime or action novels is the emotional turmoil that the main characters go through as the story progresses. This is true not only for Roger but also for Hades, the local crime boss. To explain the emotions each experiences would require giving too much of the story away. Suffice it to say that the turmoil is an integral part of the denouement.
Mr. Barrett’s plot is complex with a local crime boss, ex-KGB agents, remnants of the IRA, and corrupt police all involved in a complicated project that includes weapons trading, kidnapping, murder, and theft.
Stealing Elgar is told from several viewpoints yet manages to maintain integrity and never descends into chaos. Although there are many different characters involved, keeping the plot straight is not a problem. Though the characters all act from different motives, their paths bring them together in a rush of action and emotion.
What I Didn’t Like About the Story
First, there is a great deal of detail in the story. Forensic detail in the analysis of crime scenes is interesting and educational, but the constant internal dialogue of the characters becomes tedious after a time. We know from early in the story that Roger is conflicted: he has doubts about both his personal and professional life; he fears the retribution he thinks is coming from Weston; he is unhappy with the support he receives from his superiors. I found Roger’s nearly constant thinking about these things almost as annoying as his colleagues found his obsession with Weston.
Second, there is a great deal of graphic violence in the book with descriptions of beatings, shootings, and explosions.
Finally, I was very confused by the title of this book. It took until I was nearly 80% finished with the book before the title made any sense at all. Had I been choosing a book based on the title and the blurb, I would have been disappointed. I think that many readers will wonder, as I did, what a classical composer has to do with the plot. I will not explain the title here as that would be considered a spoiler, but if readers are very patient (or very knowledgeable) all becomes clear in the end.
For its insight into crime scene procedures and for its character development, Stealing Elgar deserves praise. Fans of noir fiction will appreciate its somewhat bleak outlook. Those looking to avoid “bad” language and violence should choose something else.