Bernard O’Keeffe – The Final Round
First, the official blurb: On the morning after Boat Race Day, a man’s body is found in a nature reserve beside the Thames. He has been viciously stabbed, his tongue cut out, and an Oxford college scarf stuffed in his mouth. The body is identified as that of Nick Bellamy, last seen at the charity quiz organised by his Oxford contemporary, the popular newsreader Melissa Matthews. Enter DI Garibaldi, whose first task is to look into Bellamy’s contemporaries from Balfour College. In particular, the surprise ‘final round’ of questions at this year’s charity quiz in which guests were invited to guess whether allegations about Melissa Matthews and her Oxford friends are true. These allegations range from plagiarism and shoplifting to sextortion and murder…
Boat Race Day in Barnes, London, is more about drinking than rowing, But if you turn a few corners, as Nick Bellamy does, you can find a private corner to meet someone – though it might not be the wisest idea. Still wearing his college scarf, the next morning his body is found in a quiet spot near the river.
Nick is – or was – part of a group of six friends who went to university together and who though mostly now are not in contact they meet once a year for a quiz. Started by Melissa as a small gathering to catch up and reminisce about their days at Balfour College, Oxford, it is now a large, glitzy and expensive event to raise money for charity as her star has risen as a TV newsreader married to a successful thriller writer.
After the discovery of Nick’s body, we skip back a few weeks to just before the annual quiz, with the build-up neatly introducing us to both the individuals involved – the six friends and their families, who are varying degrees of successful and still competitive as much as collegiate – and the type of people we are dealing with: on the surface resolutely middle-class with privileged worries gently skewered by O’Keeffe.
A surprise final round of the quiz brings up some interesting facts – or are they? – about our six friends, with anxious discussions the next day adding to the intrigue. The lovely middle-class lives start to be revealed as being rather more brittle surfaces with tensions and troubles underneath, O’Keeffe emphasising that money and privilege buy many things, but cannot buy contentment or protection from pain. Then Nick’s body is found and things get much more serious.
Enter Detective Inspector Jim Garibaldi. In investigating Nick’s death, Garibaldi finds he is also investigating the allegations made at the end of the quiz, grilling each of the friends and finding different versions of the stories as he works to find whether there is a link to the murder. Then Melissa gets a threatening letter – and Julia, another of the group, gets a note tied to a brick thrown through her window. Is there something deeper and nastier going on?
There’s a pleasant Agatha Christie flavour for much of the novel – the unusual elements in the death; the group of friends locked together by their Oxford past as closely as if they were in a country house cut off by a snowstorm; the horror of privileged people as their lives are investigated and secrets unearthed by a policeman who didn’t even go to university – and only one murder, plus the leafy surroundings of Barnes, which makes for a lighter feel than many gritty London-set police procedurals, but there is also plenty of forward motion in the plot to keep the pages turning.
DI Garibaldi too is a lighter character – he’s no depressed, lonely alcoholic, nor a maverick who takes risks and cuts corners. He’s dogged and determined, and there are horrors in his past hinted at, but he’s essentially a normal bloke with the normal troubles of a divorced man with a teenage son who is trying to get a new relationship off the ground. He may like country music, but he doesn’t sit alone in a dark room listening to vintage vinyl records obsessively while drinking whisky.
Finally we find out who was responsible for the last round of the quiz, and it’s an interesting reveal. More interesting still is finding out which of the questions – accusations, really – is closest to the truth. The denouement is surprisingly bleak, though in the final pages Garibaldi pushes his boss towards a fairer conclusion, in a sympathetic touch.
The Final Round shows us a part of London little seen in crime fiction, a tangle of characters who prove to be a lot more complex than they first appear, and a cop who is a well-rounded person with no clichéd vices or angst weighing him down. It’s a breath of fresh air in the police procedural world, and I suspect if the series continues as is promised, it will find a loyal audience.
Bernard O’Keeffe lives in Barnes. He was head of English at Radley College and head of sixth form at St Paul’s School in London. He has written two previous books, No Regrets (2013) and 10 Things To Do Before You Leave School (2019). The Final Round is his debut crime novel.