Book review: Woolly thinking

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Lamb to the Slaughter Aline Templeton Hodder & Stoughton, 320pp, £19.99 (hb), £11.99 (pb)

IF VAST URBAN SPRAWLS CLOCKED UP THE crime figures of Miss Marple's St Mary Mead, there would be a national panic. There's scarcely a week goes by in the leafy hamlet without some poor soul being poisoned, strangled or in some other way dispatched. And all in the name of the restoration of order at the hands of Christie's redoubtable sleuth.

The same might be said of Kirkluce, stomping ground of Detective Inspector Marjory Fleming, and a hotbed of violence, parochialism and barely concealed prejudices. The town setting for Aline Templeton's fourth DI Fleming novel, Lamb to the Slaughter, is one where young people are marauding yobs, old people are terrorised in their homes and small-mindedness rules. The proposal of a supermarket development is all it takes to ignite the tensions in the town and leave Fleming trying to catch a killer with a fondness for a large- gauge shotgun.

Interestingly, Templeton's concern for community and the relationships in small towns is the reason she created Kirkluce. But, after reading this novel, I can scarcely imagine why anyone would ever want to go there or choose to bring up their family in such an environment.

From an oleaginous councillor to racist toffs and ineffectual single mothers, Templeton wheels out one stereotype after another and, although a well-worked plot holds attention, the novel lacks the depth and subtlety to tempt me back for the inevitable next instalment.

As with all crime fiction series, the central detective is pivotal. Templeton's DI Fleming – a high-flying police officer and mother of two – has already garnered praise, and plenty of fans, for showing the juggling act many career women are forced into. It's that tension which replaces the more usual conflicts that beset detectives – often along the lines of how much they can drink before they fall over. There's no dysfunctional home life here. Fleming's battles are to cope with a surly 14-year-old daughter and a barely mentioned son who seems only to pose a challenge in that he's growing fast. Her farmer husband, the beatific Bill, is Fleming's rock. And about as interesting as one.

That's the problem, really. Fleming is really rather dull. At home, the problems she faces are predictable. At work, it's the same. The interplay between Fleming and Detective Sergeant Tam MacNee is where the sparks are meant to fly, but MacNee is simply a more interesting, if similarly unsurprising, character. Giving Fleming the sobriquet "Big Marj" among her officers just isn't enough to convince us that she's got attitude and authority – we need to see it and unfortunately we don't.

Templeton's technique of using a topical issue as a backdrop for DI Fleming's investigations is a good one. The foot and mouth crisis worked superbly in Cold in Earth, lending depth and tension to the plot. In Lamb to the Slaughter, the fissures created in the community between those seeking to line their own pockets and those nervous about the inevitable destruction of their town as small shops disappear and farmers struggle to make a living against the forces of big business, are equally interesting.

The problem is that Templeton allows Fleming to keep these issues at arm's length. She treats it with a police officer's dispassion, simply stating the case, and seeing merits to both sides of the argument. It's a missed opportunity, which would have allowed for the exploration and development of the relationship between Fleming and her farmer husband – a site of conflict that could have added a welcome depth to the plot.

For fans of "Big Marj", I suspect that Lamb to the Slaughter won't disappoint. For readers with a taste for less conventional fare, it's unlikely to satisfy.

• Aline Templeton is at the Edinburgh book festival on 13 and 18 August.

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