SJ Bolton is an author that I’ve been meaning to try for a while. Her books are both popular sellers but also garner decent reviews which is a difficult balance to achieve. This week I read Dead Scared almost in one sitting which is an achievement for a crime novel these days. However the tension and narrative style made this book almost impossible to put down.
When a Cambridge student sets herself alight, police are convinced that there is someone behind the abnormally high suicides that have taken place at the university. DC Lacey Flint is sent to Cambridge posing a depression-prone student in an attempt to discover if there are darker forces encouraging students to take their own lives. However, DI Mark Joesbury is concerned for her welfare, particularly as Lacey has been sent in without having been given all the facts about the girls’ deaths. The only person at the University who is aware of Lacey’s true identity is psychiatrist Evi Oliver. However, Evi is suffering from her own emotional problems and is convinced that someone is watching her. When Lacey starts to experience the same nightmares as the other dead girls, it is clear that her own sanity and life are in danger.
Because I’m not used to Bolton’s writing it was difficult at the start to work out if I was reading psychological thriller with a supernatural element. This wouldn’t have bothered me, but as the novel progressed it became clear that the women involved were being manipulated by forces that although malevolent were almost certainly from flesh and blood adversaries. This is the most compelling aspect of the book. We feel the disorientation of the two professional women – Evi and Lacey – as they try and make sense of the suicides while feeling under attack themselves. Lacey has appeared in a previous book by Bolton and although there are references to this throughout Dead Scared it made me want to read Now You See Me.
The relationship between Lacey and Mark Joesbury is intriguing. Much is made of the ‘impossibility’ of any relationship developing but in this book at least, it’s not clear why. However the sense of attraction comes across clearly. All the characters are well developed and I particularly liked the portrayal of the burned girl lying in the hospital bed. It is rare in crime fiction that you get such a poignant portrayal of a victim and I thought it admirable that Bolton managed to get over the extent of the girl’s injuries without it seeming gratuitous.
The ending really was ‘unputtdownable’ and I guess my only complaint would be that I was left slightly stunned at the end. This is almost certainly a good thing.
Thanks to the publisher Transworld for the copy of my book. Other reviews can be found at Petrona and Notes of Life both of whom also comment on the compelling nature of the ending.
Louise Welsh is an author who other crime fiction readers have been urging me to try for a while. An excellent post by Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist got me thinking about life as an expat and how the tension that often arises from living in an unfamiliar country can work well in a crime novel. Chris Pavone’s recent book The Expats depicted expat life very well although I wasn’t as convinced by the plot. However, The Girl on the Stairs, the latest book by Louise Welsh combined a tense thriller storyline with realistic depictions of the loneliness and disorientation felt by someone new to a country.
Jane has relocated to Berlin from London to join Petra, her German partner. She misses her former flat but as she is in her last months of pregnancy, she realises her old lifestyle can no longer be sustained. She met her partner at a restaurant where city banker Petra was having a dinner with colleagues and Jane was working as a waitress. You get a sense of the imbalance of their relationship from the early days; Jane who was drifting through life and enjoying her small London flat and ambitious Petra was has taken in Berlin a sleek apartment in an old building. Jane becomes obsessed with Anna, a teenage girl who lives in the same apartment block. She believes that the girl is being abused by her father, Doktor Alban Mann. She also becomes obsessed by a derelict building that can be viewed from the back of the apartment and the strange lights that appear in the tenement at night.
Despite the thriller element, this was a book of surprising depth and subtlety. We come to see Jane as an unreliable narrator and we are never sure if her perceptions have been skewed by her disorientation at her new setting, her advanced stage of pregnancy which heightens her senses and makes her fearful about the people around her, or by a genuine fear of the situation in the building. Welsh is very good at subtlety giving details about the dynamics of a relationship and characters seen even fleetingly are brought to life on the page.
Berlin, seen through the eyes of Jane, comes across as provincial city that could be found anywhere in Europe. The effects of the Second World War are still present though and are woven into the narrative with a light touch to increase the sense of menace. As readers, in a few places we are led to believe that we are one step in front of Jane, although again our perceptions are skewed by the impression of malevolence bubbling under the surface. The denouement when it comes is slightly over the top and it is only here I think we have to suspend disbelief a little. The book was an excellent read and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an engrossing thriller with an unusual setting.
I was sent a copy of the book by the publisher. Other reviews can be found at Notes of Life, Eurocrime and The Little Reader Library.