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Cold Coffin
By Gwendoline Butler
Read by Michael Tudor Barnes

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Cold Coffin
By Gwendoline Butler
Read by Michael Tudor Barnes
Soundings Audio Books, (2001)
An unabridged audio recording on 6 cassettes
ISBN: 1-86042-985-8
Genre: Mystery
Other Editions: Large Print - Hardcover | Audio CD

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - October 11, 2001

The Chief Commander of Police in Second City is John Coffin. He is a quiet but energetic man who has a hard time keeping out of the hair of his subordinates, especially when they are working on a case that really interests him. In Gwendoline Butler's novel, Cold Coffin, Coffin manages to keep his fingers in many pies. As in any large city, Second City has its share of horrific crimes. But even in a large city, sometimes something unexpected turns up - in this case, a pile of infants' skulls. Most amazingly, the pile was uncovered during renovations at the Police Station. For a man who is surrounded by death, Coffin is surprisingly disturbed by the sculls. Especially when he considers that he walked over them for years each time he went into the car park, and now, he can see their excavation from his office window.

Where the infants murdered? Possibly, but even if they were, it is not a case for the Police. According to Dr. Murray, an archeologist, the skulls belong to Neanderthal infants. But Coffin's copper radar is on the alert, and he thinks that one of the skulls may be new. If he is right, this would mean that whoever placed the scull in the pit, already knew about the Neanderthal sculls. Technically, Chief Inspector Phoebe Astley is in charge of investigating the sculls, but, per usual, she has to put up with Coffin constantly looking over her shoulder. He is definitely a man of action who hates being stuck behind a desk!

To complicate matters, a triple murder has occurred on Minden Street. A midwife and her daughters have been brutally slain. The chief suspect is the midwife's own son, John Jackson. Jackson, a well-known pornography collector is better known as Black Jack. Coffin's interest in the case is twofold. First, his interest is professional, he's a cop and this brutal case occurred on his turf. But his interest also hits closer to home. His wife, the renowned actress Stella Pinero, was friendly with the dead women. Although all fingers point to Black Jack, Coffin's intuition tells him that Black Jack is innocent and that, in some diabolical manner, these deaths are associated with the skulls.

In this hair raising mystery, the body count rapidly mounts as the story becomes increasingly complicated. Coffin and Astley work well together in solving the various murders that seem to pile on top of each other. Coffin is an intriguing and deep character. He has been featured in many of Butler's novels and some of his previous experiences find their way into this novel. For example, Coffin is still in mourning for Detective Inspector Charlie Young, a young man whom he had worked with for years and who died in the line-of-duty. His guilt over Young's death tends to make Coffin a bit over protective of Astley, much to her annoyance. In addition, Butler makes her characters so real, you can almost see Astley rolling her eyes every time she catches Coffin looking over her shoulder.

Cold Coffin is a labyrinthine mystery. Dead ends and false leads abound as the primary investigators seek their culprit. Not only do they have a handful of interconnected crimes to solve, but they must also solve the crimes as quickly as possible - before the killer strikes again. Butler's prose is fluid, the dialog realistic, and the plot thrilling. Moreover, the ending is fantastic. Many mystery authors let the reader down when it comes to the denouncement of whom the villain is, Butler is an exception. Her ending is as exciting as it is unexpected. In all, this is an excellent book, a book which has been greatly enhanced by virtue of being read by Michael Tudor Barnes, a respected thespian. His reading is compelling, and to my ear, he is the voice for John Coffin. His intonation, pace, and enthusiasm for the part all work together to infuse Coffin with the humanistic qualities often only obtained when a book is reproduced on the stage or on film. Not only does he excel at being Coffin, but he also manages to give each character a unique voice of their own that truly brings this book to life.

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This audio edition of Cold Coffin can be purchased directly from Ulverscroft, which is the parent company of Soundings Audio Books.


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