Hazel McHaffie



Last week I shared stories about the life of an exceptional real-life forensic pathologist, Dr Richard Shepherd. When I worked at Edinburgh University I was familiar with the sight and sound of another such hugely experienced pathologist: Professor Anthony Busittil. So when I found a psychological thriller where he was mentioned in the acknowledgements, my antennae quivered excitedly. And yep, the book looked intriguing enough to buy.
Blurb: A clever serial killer at loose in London’s steamy streets, leaving no clues behind except his trademark – silver spoons in their mouths instead of tongues.
Claim: ‘Guaranteed to haunt your dreams‘. Oh yeah?
Title: Messiah.

You’d certainly need a dependable expert to guide you through the minefields of this particular tale! I can just imagine the phonecalls …
What would happen if you drove a nail through a human hand and let it take the weight of the body?
How would you go about skinning a human body?
What would the blood splatter look like if you cut out a person’s tongue while he was still alive?
What’s also fascinating to me is that Professor Andreas Lubezski, the Home Office Pathologist in the story, shares a number of similar characteristics with Prof Busittil! An accolade or mini-thanks in itself.

So, what of the book then? Well, it was the debut novel for Boris Starling back in 1999, and I’ve subsequently discovered it was dramatised for the BBC with no less than four televised sequels! Who knew?! It completely passed me by. But I guess that ongoing interest gives some indication of its fascination and pull. And indeed, the original book is a fiendishly clever novel, hooking the reader in from the very first sentence, managing to maintain the suspense through eleven gory murders, two wrongful arrests, and even twisting the knife at the very end.

If you’re like me, and haven’t seen or read it before, then

In a nutshell, a killer is stalking the streets of London, slaughtering men to a pattern. Not a shred of incriminating evidence is left behind, just corpses, clothed only in their underpants, with their tongues expertly cut out and solid silver spoons left in their mouths. So from the outset the police know this monster is acutely forensically aware, and he has an agenda, a message. Pitting his wits against this merciless maniac is Detective Superintendent Redfern Metcalfe, a skilled investigator, famed for his ability to get inside the minds of deranged killers. Alongside him, three handpicked colleagues, later reduced to just two. But Red himself has a tortured past. He has hidden an act that could have him imprisoned if it ever came out, and his only brother is serving a life sentence for murder. Baggage enough, you’d think.

Initially Red is at a complete loss. There are no mutual friends, no mutual interests, no apparent pre-death links at all between the victims. So who is ‘Silver Tongue’? Gradually, as the macabre body count rises, the team pieces together a profile. The killer is a religious zealot, basing his murders on biblical accounts of the life and death of Jesus Christ, each victim, each manner of death, carefully selected and executed to reflect features relating to each of the apostles, each killing occurring on a specific date.

May 1st. Philip is a caterer. He’s been hanged.
May 1st. James is a bishop. He’s been beaten to death.
July 25th. James is an army officer. He’s been decapitated.
August 24th. Bart(holomew) is a leather worker. He’s been skinned alive.
September 21st. Matthew is a tax inspector. He’s been hacked to death.
October 28th. Jude is a worker with the Samaritan. He’s been clubbed to death.
October 28th. Simon is a member of parliament. He’s found sawn in half.
November 30th. Andrew is a young fish man from Billingsgate market. He’s been crucified on a Scottish Saltire.
December 27th. John was an author and journalist. He died two years before but his embalmed body has been removed from a mausoleum and draped out in the open in Highgate cemetery.
June 29th. Peter is a locksmith. He’d been crucified upside down.
December 21st. Thomas is an architect. He’s been killed by a lance and his right hand severed.

Can you see any patterns?

Well, by the time of the eleventh murder Red has unravelled the secrets of this demonic mind. What’s more, he knows he himself is next. His fear is unlike anything else he has ever experienced; he is up against an assailant who hasn’t made a single mistake in executing this whole series of murders, even when the police knew the date he would next strike, the name of the expected victim, and the likely weapon of destruction. Will Red manage to outwit this monster? Will they capture him alive? It’s mesmerising reading. I must be hardened after all this immersion in psychological thrillers because it hasn’t affected my sleep, but it has given me a sense of awe, in that the real human mind can conceive such a plot and capture it so mind-blowingly well. Hats off to Boris Starling … and Anthony Bussitil!

PS. I’ve since watched the dramatisations and, guess what? the book is way way better!



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