Given a legitimate reason to be cruel, we jump at it

Awakening by S J BoltonAwakening
by S J Bolton

I really enjoy Sharon Bolton’s thrillers, even if I am beginning to spot recurring themes and tropes. They’re easy and quick to read but still well and intelligently written.

Clara is a vet in a small village on the border of Devon and Dorset. She is more comfortable with animals than people, but her colleagues and neighbours recognise her competency and call on it whenever needed. Her background includes studying reptiles, so when snakes start turning up in people’s homes, and a man even dies from a snake bite, at first the locals and the police turn to her for help, but they soon start to suspect her instead.

“Sleep was a long time in coming. And when it did arrive it was restless, filled with dreams and shivery half-wakings. Towards dawn I had the recurring dream that I most dread. I am in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I turn I see reflections of myself. As the dream goes on, the reflections become more and more distorted. No longer is it just my face that’s scarred, but the rest of me as well.”

It’s an unusual set of crimes, a jumble of meticulous planning and randomness, which makes the crime side of the story work really well. But I must admit that Clara’s story was a little cliched. It reminded me of a 90s Hollywood film, where the plain shy girl turns out to be beautiful after all when a handsome man (or two) finally deigns to notice her and bolster her confidence.

I did like all the snake facts, even if some scenes were a bit nightmarish. And the descriptions of typical work at a wildlife hospital run by a charity were both lovely and upsetting (there’s an early scene featuring the aftermath of badger baiting). Bolton has clearly done a lot of research but she’s also done a decent job of holding back the info dumps.

“I felt myself give a deep sigh and didn’t try to hide it. What he was saying was about one-fifth truth and four-fifths arrant nonsense…He was beginning to make me angry. And it wasn’t just his staring. There is nothing remotely humane about a rattlesnake round-up…It’s a cruel, stupid spectacle and one that causes huge environmental damage every year…It’s never far from the surface, is it, our willingness to mistreat those weaker than ourselves? Given a legitimate reason to be cruel, how often do we jump at it?”

But where Bolton really excels is to make every character suspicious. I even started to wonder how reliable Clara was as a narrator. After all, early on she admits that she doesn’t look at people’s faces if she can avoid it, so how much is she missing?

I still haven’t read a Bolton thriller as good as the first of hers that I came across, Little Black Lies, but I’m going to keep on reading them!

Published 2009 by Bantam Press.

Source: Secondhand from a charity shop.