by SJ Bolton
Last year one of my books of the year was Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton, a crime drama set in the Falklands that I found beautiful and gripping. So I had been on the lookout for other books by her and was excited to spot this one on sale. You can tell it’s an older title from the fact she was still using the pen name “SJ Bolton”, presumably to disguise her gender, but also from the fact it’s a slightly less ambitious undertaking.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s just less impressive than one of my favourite books of last year. Now that’s out of the way I’ll explain what it’s all about.
Heptonclough is a fictional Lancashire village surrounded by the Pennine Moor. It’s a classic atmospheric setting, both wide open space and spookily claustrophobic thanks to the residents effectively being trapped at night or in bad weather by the danger of the surrounding countryside. New vicar Harry is not a local and neither are the Fletcher family, residents of the village’s only new build in decades thanks to the Church of England selling off some land next to the church. Both the church and the Fletchers’ home are loomed over by the ruins of an ancient abbey, giving the village a gothic centrepiece.
The book opens with Harry being shown a crime scene by local policeman DCS Rushton – a mudslide has caused a 10-year-old grave to collapse, revealing not one but three bodies, two of which should not be there. The story then skips back two months to the arrival of Harry shortly after that of the Fletchers. He’s a groovy young vicar who wears shorts and sometimes swears, and he’s nervous about the task ahead of him – Heptonclough’s church has been shut up and unused for 10 years.
Evi is a doctor, a psychologist whose latest patient, Gillian, is a Heptonclough resident who is still struggling to cope with her grief years after losing her infant daughter. She is also referred the Fletchers’ oldest son, 10-year-old Tom, when his family become concerned about his insistence that a mysterious ghost-like girl is stalking their family.
“Sometimes, when clouds were moving fast in the sky and their shadows were racing across the ground, it seemed to Tom that the moors were rippling, the way water does when there’s something beneath the surface; or stirring, like a sleeping monster about to wake up. And just occasionally, when the sun went down across the valley and the darkness was coming, Tom couldn’t help thinking that the moors around them had moved closer.”
Heptonclough is spooky for more than just its setting. Most of the land is owned by the Renshaw family, who exert an old-fashioned level of control over all the village’s affairs. They insist on centuries-old traditions being continued and delight in the disconcerting effect some of those traditions have on outsiders. Their welcome to the new vicar and new family alike are unconvincing, and both suffer from pranks that in a schoolyard would be called bullying, but outside of school grounds they seem far more insidious.
There’s a lot to like about this book. Evi is disabled, suffering chronic pain in her leg that requires her to use a walking stick or wheelchair to get about. Although it’s integrated into the plot, the plot would work just as well without it, which I appreciated. Thanks to her profession and the book’s events, there are insights into lots of different forms of psychological disturbance and none of it seemed pat or neat – there was a complexity about every character that showed both research and observation.
From a glance at other reviews of this book, some people seemed to object to the romantic storyline. In the first half of the novel it is arguably the largest plot thread and provides a real distraction from the sinister goings-on. I am a sucker for a well-written romance and would have been disappointed by that story’s lesser part in the second half had the crime plot not become so gripping.
“Oh, this couldn’t be a kiss – this was a butterfly, bruising its wings against the curve of her cheek, the point where the smile begins.
Was this a kiss? This soft stroking of the lips? This crazy feeling that she was being touched everywhere?
And this certainly couldn’t be a kiss, not now that she was spinning away into a place lined with dark velvet…If this was a kiss, why were tears burning in the back of her eyes?”
Like a lot of great thrillers, there is from the start a suggestion that the solution might be supernatural. There’s also more than a hint of The Wicker Man at play here. All the clues are provided so that the murderer can be guessed (I guessed quite early on, though I wouldn’t say I was by any means certain) but it’s a good enough read that I still wanted to see how it all played out.
I do have some minor quibbles. The quaint English village and budding romance made the early part of the novel lighter than expected for a crime story, and I was a little impatient for it to get properly dark and scary. Which it does. I also found the suspicion was laid a little thick on some characters and not at all on others, making it a bit too clear who we readers are supposed to have our eye on.
But overall this was a great read and I am still very eager to read more of Bolton’s work.
Published 2010 by Bantam Press.