Carnal Acts, by Sam Alexander, is a tightly written crime thriller that explores the brutal underworld of criminal gangs. Set in a small town in Northern England it offers up a plethora of prejudices for consideration. Racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia and class are all thrown into the mix as the many characters are introduced and developed. None of this detracts from the key plot, an ongoing series of murders that appear to be linked to a brothel owned by an Albanian mafia.
I am not always a fan of crime fiction, but Carnal Acts was not written in the formulaic style that so many of this genre follow, and which I can find irritating. The key, female detective did not have an unwise affair; the reader is not subjected to copious superlatives on her sexy good looks; she did not require an heroic rescue by her male counterpart. Instead the various officers, male and female, were given very human skills and flaws that rendered their actions and mistakes believable. There was a large cast, and I sometimes found it hard to keep up with who was who, but each added depth to the unfolding tale.
The workings of the gangs were described in terrifying detail. In comparing the human trafficking with the slave trade that gave the local aristocrats their wealth, the reader is forced to confront the notion that these criminal overlords are so very different to supposedly respected members of society. The grim conditions under which both the forced and voluntary immigrants lived and worked, alongside the way they were treated by both their Albanian masters and the local population, brought home to me how little has changed, how much society is still willing to look away. It was both thought provoking and disturbing.
Although these facets and complexities added greatly to my regard for and enjoyment of the book, at its heart Carnal Acts remains a fast moving, compelling work of easy to read crime fiction. I stayed up late to finish it because I had to know what happened next, and I was not disappointed. The ending was unexpected; not too neat or nice, but fist in the air satisfying.
Sam Alexander is a pseudonym for a highly regarded crime novelist. Whoever he or she may be, they can be justifiably proud of this work. It goes above and beyond the more typical offerings of the genre without diminishing in any way the entertainment that readers seek. It is a rare book that can explore so many dark themes in such an accessible and compelling style.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.