Review: To Catch a Rabbit by Helen Cadbury


A dead woman sits slumped against the door of a grubby trailer. She’s on Sean Denton’s patch, but who is she, how did she get there, and why doesn’t CID want to investigate? As Doncaster’s youngest PCSO, Denton takes the case into his own hands, but he’s way out of his depth.

When people are reported missing, Denton must work backwards – facing corruption from outside and inside the force – before anyone else falls victim to South Yorkshire’s deadly underwork of migrants and the sex trade.”

I’ll admit it, I did chuckle a little when I first read its blurb – the letters PCSO rarely combine to spell “exciting protagonist”, and Sean Denton is indeed no Philip Marlowe – but Helen Cadbury’s To Catch a Rabbit certainly offers more than it might seem to at first. A crime narrative not set in London, for one.

In fact, this is probably one of the major strengths of TCaR, since Cadbury really seems to know her Yorkshire. She moves her characters about York and Doncaster – and even, for a brief, glorious moment, Sheffield – with such confidence that even I, a lifelong Brummie, could place myself in their shoes. Even her dialogue is so distinctly of its place that nothing short of printing it in tweed could make it more authentically Yorkshire, and the result is a pleasingly realistic representation of the county.

It is odd, then, that the novel’s representation of the world outside of Yorkshire can get so stereotypical. It never really becomes unreadably problematic, but there are a few dodgy moments. My personal favourite is the point at which one character, Phil, meets an Eastern-European woman and almost immediately imagines her “picking potatoes like her ancestors in the Polish countryside”, although the way that Sean Denton takes it upon himself to make up a name that sounds “sort of Chinese” for the corpse of a woman with East-Asian features, rather than settling for the more professional “Jane Doe” takes a close second.

Actually, Denton is probably TCaR’s biggest flaw; I hinted earlier at his shortcomings as a protagonist, and while he isn’t totally without his redeeming qualities – for one thing, he exudes enough underdog determination to fuel an entire library of ‘90s sports films – he is also undeniably dull, in both senses of the word. Throughout TCaR, it often felt as though we were getting to see him spend more quality time with his nan or bumbling around the station cafeteria than actually solving crimes. Sure, this makes him feel real, but it doesn’t make him interesting.

Similarly, whilst I understand that, in reality, not every policeman is as razor sharp as Sherlock Holmes, Denton seems frustratingly thick at times. Things happen to him that would send a reader’s alarm bells ringing like a clumsy burglar in a tripwire factory, and he just does not react to them; in the opening chapter, his superior demonstrates a suspicious amount of prior knowledge about the murder victim before violently ordering Sean to forget about it and mind his own business. In a book that makes explicit reference to a corrupt police force in its blurb, this is exactly the kind of thing the reader would expect their crime-solving protagonist to pick up on. Not Sean though. No, Sean totally forgets about it almost immediately, and, beyond noticing blandly that the ear-twisting the superior inflicted upon him made his ear hurt, doesn’t even react to it in any meaningful way.

The problem is that Sean just feels like a rather disappointing protagonist. Most of the detective work is done by real police-officers, and so Sean’s commitments to solve the crimes and bring justice to the victims often end up being fulfilled by other characters. I can tell he’s trying, but other than acting as a point of reference for the reader to watch the events of the novel through, he really doesn’t accomplish a lot, and a lot of the time he feels very superfluous to the plot.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and at points, I was almost glad that Sean’s personality wasn’t getting in the way of TCaR’s secondary characters. With the possible exception of Karen Friedman, the permanently miserable secondary protagonist, most of the book’s cast are characterised brilliantly, and whilst they may occasionally foray into stock-character territory, their dialogue is generally written with such originality and charisma that this rarely feels like a problem. Indeed, one character, Lee Stubbs, so perfectly epitomised his character-type that it consistently felt as though he were the origin of the chav-stereotype, rather than a mere derivative of it.

So whatever its flaws, To Catch a Rabbit is far from unreadable. In fact, it’s an impressively engaging novel, and between the dialogue and the remarkable sense of place, Cadbury’s writing really seems to know what it’s doing. Sure, PCSO Denton came off as a little dopey at points, and I’m still not entirely sure I understand what its rabbit motif is about, but I’d still be glad to recommend this book to anyone looking for a solid bit of home-grown crime-fiction.

Helen Cadbury’s debut novel, To Catch a Rabbit was joint winner of the Northern Crime Award 2012. And her new novel, Bones in the Nest (second in the Sean Denton series) is out now. Helen Cadbury IN 2015 she was chosen as an Amazon Rising Star, best debuts of January 2015. In October 2015, To Catch a Rabbit was selected in the Yorkshire Post’s top 13 books that have defined Yorkshire since the millennium. And WHSmith readers voted To Catch a Rabbit no.12 in top crime books which they’d like to see on screen. Keep your eyes peeled!