Next week we are going away on holiday, and I seem to have a pile of books I haven’t reviewed. What have I been talking about here lately? Anyway, I must get through them because I’ll forget them otherwise, and I fully intend to spend a good part of my holiday stuck in a book, thus clocking up yet another backlog.
First up, two very different thrillers. River of Darkness by Rennie Airth is set in 1921, under the long shadow of the First World War. It opens with the discovery of a massacre at a manor house in Surrey, the victims all stabbed apart from the lady of the house who has been killed in a strange and disturbing manner. It’s a gruesome crime and a seemingly motiveless one, as the family was highly respectable and much loved in the area. Airth’s novel features Detective Inspector John Madden, a man haunted by the horrors of the trenches who is using his job as a shield against his own despair. For some time the collected police forces, both local and metropolitan are stumped, and Madden and his boss, Chief Inspector Sinclair, know they need results before the case is taken from them and placed in the hands of Chief Superintendent Sampson, a man who puts his own PR before procedure and who they are convinced will take an unimaginative line on the case. But a few breakthroughs put them on the trail of a very damaged man, and their unorthodox use of the new science of psychoanalysis starts to uncover a picture of a criminal who will stop at nothing to satisfy his desires.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It creates a strong sense of place and beautifully reproduces the atmosphere of the early 1920s. It’s also extremely well plotted, inexorably drawing its strings together and then winding them tight as the climax is approached. Yet for all its pace, it’s a spacious book with plenty of time to present and develop characters. John Madden gets himself a love interest in the feisty local doctor, Helen Blackwell, and the emerging portrait of the criminal is so cleverly and delicately done. I loved it; very superior crime fiction.
The second thriller was a most unusual one. Bluethroat Morning by Jacqui Lofthouse is the story of Harry Bliss, a man who cannot get over his wife’s suicide and who, six years later, decides to return to the lonely beach in Norfolk where she took her life to solve the mystery surrounding her death. He’s aided in this by a new love interest, Helen, the 19-year-old daughter of his best friend, a girl who really ought to be out of bounds, but who joins forces with him in part because she’s as obsessed by his wife as he is. The enigmatic center of the novel is Alison Oakley, a once-famous model who left the profession dangerously emaciated. Rebuilding her life, she meets Harry, marries him and writes a bestselling novel about anorexia. So far so good, but faced with the obstacle of the second novel, her self-esteem tumbles again and Harry fears for her state of mind. And then, she comes across an old family photo that shows Harry’s great-grandfather and his second wife, the lovely Arabella who committed suicide by walking into the sea. Alison determines to find out as much as she can about the woman and travels alone to Norfolk to work on her novel, only to end up in, a surprising twist of fate, burning the pages she wrote and re-enacting Arabella’s tragic death.
So as you can begin to see, this is a novel of recurrent patterns, of obsession and of recreating stories from the past. Harry falls in love with Helen because she looks so similar to Arabella, and Helen has read the newspaper reports about Harry that unjustly claimed he caused Alison’s death by neglecting her in her depression and failing to support her in her work. Their edgy relationship, a strange mix of passion and antagonism, propels them on a headlong dash to Norfolk to the cottage where Alison lived and the strange local character, the 98-year-old Ern Higham, who seems to hold all the answers. There’s a great list of secondary characters including a journalist with a grudge against Harry and an American academic seeking to write the biography of Alison’s life. This is a beautifully written novel that moves at a slow, dreamy pace, building up layers of suspense. It makes you wait for the answers, but they are worth it when they come – it’s a sophisticated, intense read.
Finally, a word about Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones. This novel really does deserve all the accolades it’s been given. What a classy, clever story this is, but you do have to keep your wits about you reading it. It opens with Polly, aged 19, staring at the painting on her wall (of ‘Fire and Hemlock’) and finding a door open in her mind onto a second, hidden set of memories. These take her nine years back in time to a difficult period in her life when her two self-centred parents are divorcing and she is spending most of her time at her grandmother’s house. Playing with her friend, Nina, they gate crash a funeral at the somewhat forbidding manor house at the end of the lane, where Polly is befriended by Thomas Lynne, a man who seems as out of place as she is. Tom, a grown-up, a cellist and possibly the most unlikely but charming hero of fiction, joins Polly in her favourite activity of story-weaving, harmless enough until it seems that the stories they create are coming true. And the more Polly gets to know Tom, the more she realizes that he is bound by curious and worrying ties to the owners of the grand house where they first met, Morton and Laurel Leroy. They seem to have a magical hold over him, and Tom’s safety depends on Polly giving him up as a friend.
This is a covert love story that delights in inserting fantastic elements into recognizable reality. It’s funny and completely engaging and transports the reader effortlessly into a plausible, supernatural world. The ending is complicated, however, and Wynne Jones just loves the art of subtle suggestion. I think I understood about 75% of it, but the effect of this was only to make me want to read the novel over again. It was such a pleasant journey. If you enjoy YA fiction, this is a must, and if you’ve never read any, it’s a great place to start.
Phew! I’ll do some more reviews on Sunday – as you can appreciate, it’s been a great stretch lately.