The Man With No Face by Peter May

Hold the front page…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new editor takes over at The Edinburgh Post and begins to dumb it down in an attempt to increase circulation, top investigative journalist Neil Bannerman makes his feelings only too clear. So he is swiftly banished to Brussels, to the headquarters of the EEC (as the EU was called back then), tasked with digging up some stories in the run-up to the forthcoming British Parliamentary elections. No-one is expecting quite such a big story though. Bannerman’s fellow journalist, Tim Slater, is murdered along with a rising man in British politics, Robert Gryffe. When the story is quickly hushed up on orders from on high, Bannerman’s journalist interest is only more heightened, and he sets out to discover who carried out the killings and, perhaps more importantly, why.

This is one of Peter May’s earliest books, first published in 1981 and now being republished. In the introduction, May says he carried out a “light revision” of the text, but made only minor changes. When I learned it was such an early novel and long out of print, I lowered my expectations going in, but was intrigued to see how one of my long-term favourite authors started out. Well! No need to make allowances – this is a great thriller, right up there with the best he’s ever done!

Mostly we see the story from Bannerman’s perspective though in the third person, but there are also chapters throughout where the perspective shifts to Kale, the hired assassin who carries out the killings. This doesn’t in any way diminish the mystery, since Kale doesn’t know who has hired him or why – he’s simply doing a job. These chapters give an extra edge of darkness to the story. Kale is a damaged man, unsurprisingly given his profession, and a cold, clinical killer who doesn’t make mistakes. Until this time. Unknown to him, Slater’s young autistic daughter, Tania, has witnessed the killings, but her condition makes her unable to speak. She can draw however, and she draws a detailed picture of the killer, with just one thing missing… his face.

Bannerman is an excellent protagonist – hard, uncompromising, relentless when he’s on the track of a story, but with his own vulnerabilities and troubled past. He is drawn towards Tania, and she, sensitive to others’ feelings and starved of affection, finds herself equally drawn to him. So when it seems she might be in danger because of witnessing the crime, Bannerman has an extra reason to find the killer. Tania has a regular babysitter, Sally, who provides a love interest for Bannerman, but she of course also has a troubled past! I wouldn’t describe the book as full-on noir, but there’s certainly a noirish feel to it with all these damaged characters and corrupt politicians. But May doesn’t overplay his hand, and allows at least some of his characters some hope of redemption, all of which prevents the tone from becoming too bleak.

In the introduction again, May says that the portrayal of Tania’s autism is “a reflection of prevailing opinion at the time”. I must say I think it’s stood the test of time very well, and still reads to me as far more authentic and less sensationalised or mawkish than many of the more recent fictional portrayals of people with autism. The reader is occasionally allowed inside Tania’s mind where we see her frustration at her inability to express herself, and that helps to explain her sometimes extreme behaviour. It’s a sympathetic and somewhat understated picture, and I found her entirely credible.

Peter May

The plot is complex and Bannerman’s search for the truth is again very credible, well within the realism of investigative journalism. May, of course, was a journalist himself back in the day, so it’s hardly surprising that the aspects surrounding the newspaper business ring true. The book is set in 1979, so no internet or mobile phones, and it reminded me how much I preferred thrillers back in the days when the protagonist was a real old-fashioned gumshoe, always on the move, dealing with people face to face. There is some violence, but nothing that felt overly graphic or out of place, and there’s a real and increasing sense of danger as the story unfolds, all leading up to an excellent thriller climax.

I must say I loved this as much as any of his later books, and am now hoping that Quercus dig out his other early thrillers and dust them off. A special treat for fans, but would work just as well for newcomers to his work. Highly recommended! It’s left me wanting to go back and re-read all his China thrillers, too…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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33 thoughts on “The Man With No Face by Peter May

  1. Oh, this does sound enticing, FictionFan! Normally, I’m not one for protagonists who are overly damaged; I think it’s been overdone. But in the hands of someone like May, I can see how those characters would also be, well, human, and therefore accessible. And the storyline itself does sound interesting, if a bit dark. I can see why you liked this one so well. Not that my TBR needs any additions…. *sigh*…

    • None of the characters were dysfunctional even though they had baggage – it’s when they are constantly angst-ridden that it drives me mad, but Bannerman was way too busy chasing bad guys to spend much time angsting! Your TBR will be very glad that you were so weak-willed… trussssst me… 😉

  2. While I do think this sounds good, I sometimes prefer a plot along these lines in film form. (even though it’s sometimes easier to keep track of everything in a book)

    • This would make a great film. I do like thriller movies but I agree – I follow the plot better in a book. Haha! I was re-watching Die Hard 2 the other day for maybe the millionth time, and suddenly realised I really had no idea what the bad guys were actually trying to achieve… 😉

  3. Drat, another one for my TBR! FF, you’re doing this on purpose, right?!? The very last thing I need is to add to the bloat already there, but what the hey — who can refuse a good thriller? Thanks for another outstanding review!

    • Thanks, Debbie! 😀 This one will be a great addition to the pile, and deserves a place near the top! I’ll make sure I review at least one not-so-stellar book this week so as not to tempt you again… 😉

  4. Like you, I’m nostalgic for the books that describe detective who do all face-to-face work, it’s so much more interesting! I’m reading a new book now I think you’d like, although I doubt it’s available in the UK. It’s by Maureen Jennings, the woman who wrote the Murdoch Mystery series (do you know it? CBC made a show of it?). Anyway, she has a sassy female detective, in 1936 solving a crime. Fabulous!

    • Ooh, that does sound good! I loved the Murdoch Mysteries for a few seasons and then either it disappeared or my butterfly mind drifted onto something else. I was rather in love with Murdoch, I must admit – or actually with his gorgeous thick eyelashes, as it happens. 😂 Sometimes, I wonder if I’m shallow… 😉 Is the book called Heat Wave? If so, it’s scheduled to come out over here in April, but ridiculously overpriced as Canadian books often are here. I’ll stick it on the wishlist and see if the price drops after a bit… 😀

    • All Peter May’s books have the black covers and I must admit I love them! The title is off-putting, though – it’s OK once you realise it’s just that the little girl didn’t draw his face, but it sound a bit gruesome otherwise. He really is one of the best thriller writers… 😀

  5. Sounds great! And no internet or mobiles, what a treat. I’ve not heard of an author revising an earlier work in this way, it’s an interesting idea. He must have been tempted to do more, but I respect his restraint in leaving it essentially the same. Especially as it’s stood the test of time – what an achievement!

    • Ha! I was laughing a bit at the intro. Reading between the lines, he seems to have thought it would need a lot of work, then read it for the first time in decades and discovered he thought it was pretty great! He actually describes himself as being “delighted” with it. I bet if I could go back in time and see the filing system I created for my desk drawer back in my first job, I’d be delighted too… 😉

    • Oh you really must try Peter May sometime – he’s one of my favourite crime writers! Yes, I always find he’s very sensitive at portraying these kinds of conditions – he doesn’t sensationalise them. He had a character with Alzheimer’s in another of his books and I felt it too was authentic and sympathetic…

    • I reckon it could catch on, especially if the early books are good as this one! I can think of one or two debut novels where I bet the writer would love to go back and make them better once they’ve honed their skills… 🙂

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