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the-killing-poolReleased: 2014 (First published in 2013)

Liverpool is the coke capital of Europe and by God am I up for Hodge’s master plan to save the world from its sins.

Think Liverpool. But forget The Beatles, forget Cilla Black and forget capital of culture. The Killing Pool takes this famous city and exposes its grim, drug-addled and corruption-infected underworld. Kevin Sampson asks readers why anyone would want to visit this Merseyside centre, let alone live and set up shop there.

Spanning three different time periods – 1984, 1997 and 2012 – the story follows the narcotics squad of the Liverpool police force under the direction of Police Commissioner Hodge as they pursue the worst of the worst: the heavy-hitters and big names in a gutter of drug-dealing, murdering scum. Beginning with the violent murder of a young student and police informant named Kalan in 2012, the story then shifts back to the ‘80s as a fresh-faced, idealistic graduate joins the squad and attempts to take down Liverpool’s drug trade once and for all.

As new characters are introduced and old ones forgotten, we move through to the 1990s with DCI Billy McCartney – a top detective obsessed with bringing down the bad guys at all costs (particularly to himself). As the novel progresses we discover how interlinked these three timelines truly are, and how even characters lost along the way can, like the cocaine at the heart of the tale, come back to haunt Liverpool’s streets again.

The Killing Pool has all the standard tropes of the genre: the femme fatales, coppers with secrets, criminal businessmen, ambiguous heroes. It is bloody and grubby and tense – elements particularly well-executed in the 1984 timeline, and one harrowing moment that becomes the catalyst for future events. Sampson has a great handle on crafting compelling characters, and clearly a gift for writing a convincing crime procedural. McCartney is an interesting study of a character flecked with ambiguity: he is deeply committed to the job, yet there are hints he has been compromised. A tough copper, brilliant at his job but a risk to himself and those around him…? It’s certainly a familiar premise to any readers or viewers of the crime genre.

The dense plot is not overwhelming, as it is flattened into a light book of only 300 pages. And maybe that’s the main problem. The plot has intrigue and potential, but its brevity lets down its ambition. The characters are all deserving of more backstory, more depth. Sampson clearly had a game plan in mind when writing this, yet it feels like he doesn’t stop to check if the reader is interested in keeping up with it. Plot threads interweave, the story follows curves and twists, but there is a nagging sense that it is never leading anywhere worth following.

Sampson wants Liverpool to become the beating heart of European crime fiction, but this attempt just falls short in achieving that goal, flatlining before it gets a chance. However, the story of DCI Billy McCartney’s isn’t over yet. A sequel is out now, and here’s hoping round two manages to jumpstart this promising first outing, bringing a bit more verve to this crime drama.

★★

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