When I reviewed Mel Sherratt’s Written in the Scars about a year ago, I concluded: “Tho’ I think Mel Sherratt is really flourishing in the detective story genre . . . the Mitchell Estate remains closest to my heart as a place to meet characters whom I love, speaking a bit differently but whom I’ve come to recognise almost as neighbours & friends.” So now Mel has merged the police procedurals with her Estate series, giving us a new police officer, DS Eden Berrisford, who covers the town of Stockleigh (clearly Stoke) including the Mitchell Estate, so one of my favourite principal characters from the Estate series, Josie Mellor the housing officer, puts in a cameo appearance here. Eden is on the verge of middle-age and has a teenage daughter Laura, & a broken relationship with Laura’s father. Like Mel Sherratt’s other principal characters, Eden has to offer strong support for others whilst carrying a lot of emotional baggage—one of the reasons they inspire us so much. We also have gang violence amongst teenagers that has led to the death of one girl & another, Katie, being banged up in prison awaiting trial accused of her death. Then another of Laura’s friends, her cousin Jess, who has been involved with a gang stealing mobile phones, is abducted. So Eden gets involved investigating the disappearance of her own niece. As in the Estate series, the women characters form a support system for each other. This one is organised by Josie & called SWAP, Stockleigh Working to Achieve Potential. The characters whom I find most inspiring in Mel Sherratt’s stories are those who can use community support & social services not as an excuse to sink into dependency (tho’ the Mitchell Estate is well stocked with skivers too) but to improve their lives, for whom being able to take a vocational course or learn to run a small business opens new opportunities, a better home, a better life. We see that a police officer such as Eden doesn’t just maintain order, but has an important social function. Tho’ I don’t recall the term’s being employed, The Girls Next Door shows us through Eden how community policing can work at its very best, just as Cath Mason exemplifies role modelling and mentoring in Somewhere to Hide and Josie Mellor supervising social housing in Behind a Closed Door, not checking boxes but helping their clients have better lives.
Both parents and teens are nicely portrayed in a few strokes & the teens in particular learn how to take responsibility for their careless & wrong choices. It took me about half way though to start feeling comfortable with so many characters but once they were firmly established for me they felt very real. Mel Sherratt’s literary career has been an awesome inspiration, from multiple reject relying on self-publishing to get Allie Shenton before the public to best-sellerdom. Here I think she handled a complex plot beautifully. I kept wondering how Jess’s disappearance and the mobile phone theft ring could work together & was pleased with the outcome. Still, that fifth star blinks a bit. The story behind Jess’s disappearance did not ring for me with total conviction & the denouement felt deliberately postponed, whilst the plot involving Katie was wrapped up almost perfunctorily. But our time spent with Mel Sherratt’s principal characters is passed with imaginary best friends. I listen to Radio Stoke on the internet to imagine their voices.