Set in the snowy mountain forests of Oregon, The Child Finder (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, £12.99) is the second novel from bestselling American author Rene Denfeld. Naomi, the eponymous investigator, is asked to find eight-year-old Madison Culver, who disappeared three years earlier during a trip to cut down a Christmas tree and who is generally assumed to have frozen to death. Single-minded Naomi – herself a missing child, with only vague memories to serve as clues to the mystery of her origins – is determined to find Madison, come what may. The narrative alternates between Naomi’s search and Madison’s experience of being locked in the cave-like cellar of a remote cabin. Her coping mechanism is to re-invent herself as ‘the snow girl’, putting herself into a fairy tale to deal with the trauma of being wrenched from her family by a predatory stranger she knows only as ‘B’. Given the subject matter, Denfeld’s lyrical writing can, on occasion, be discomforting, but the sense of physical and psychological isolation is palpable in this moving exploration of loss, hope and human resilience.
There’s more wilderness in Dark Pines (Point Blank, £12.99) by Will Dean, who has chosen to set his debut novel in his adoptive country, Sweden. Journalist Tuva Moodyson has relocated to the isolated town of Gavrik to be near her sick mother. A former city-dweller, she hates the vast forest that surrounds the place, and her sense of otherness is exacerbated by the fact that she is deaf. Work on the local paper is humdrum until the discovery of a body with missing eyes, and a possible link to earlier killings, propels her into an investigation. The suspects, who include a hoarder and two sisters who make stupendously creepy trolls, are satisfyingly bizarre, and the forest, teeming with all manner of dangerous wildlife, is wonderfully depicted. Memorably atmospheric, with a dogged and engaging protagonist, this is a compelling start to what promises to be an excellent series.
The small Scillonian island of Bryher is the setting for Hell Bay by Kate Rhodes (Simon & Schuster, £20.00), also the first book in a projected series. DI Ben Kitto, on leave from the Met after the death of his partner, returns to his childhood home to ponder his future, but plans for a three-month stint working at Uncle Ray’s boatyard are scuppered when the body of a sixteen-year-old girl is found. Ben volunteers to help find the culprit, who must still be on the island as a two-day storm has prevented any of the inhabitants – all of whom are his friends or acquaintances – from leaving. Bryher may be beautiful, but life, largely dependent on fishing and tourism, isn’t easy, and although it is the sort of place where people leave their doors unlocked, there are plenty of secrets… Beautifully written and expertly plotted, this is a masterclass in ‘closed world’ crime fiction.
There’s nothing wild or windswept about Sarah Vaughan’s debut crime novel, Anatomy of a Scandal (Simon & Schuster, £12.99), but its glossy, privileged London setting abounds with human predators. Barrister Kate Woodcroft is tasked with prosecuting junior Home Office minister James Whitehouse for raping a young researcher with whom he has recently had an affair. James, chummy with the Prime Minister since Eton and a former member of a Bullingdon-type club at Oxford where drunken, drug-fuelled toffs behave badly at parties, is handsome, charismatic and a family man. The narrative baton passes between Kate, James, and his adoring wife Sophie, with a second storyline set in the 1990s and featuring Holly, who studied at Oxford at the same time as Sophie, James and future PM Tom. While it’s not hard to guess the part Holly plays in the story, this engrossing psych-thriller-cum-courtroom-drama is full of pertinent and – in the light of the #MeToo campaign – timely observations about sex, power and entitlement.
CJ Tudor’s assured debut novel, The Chalk Man (Michael Joseph, £12.99), is a timeslip set in a market town on the south coast of England. In 1986, the narrator, Eddie Adams, is 12 years old, building dens, riding bikes and communicating in a secret code of chalk figures with his friends Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo and Nicky. The fun and games are undercut by disturbing events which culminate in a series of anonymous chalk drawings leading to the discovery of a dismembered girl in the woods. In 2016, Eddie, now 42 and still living in the family home, is a teacher with a drink problem, tormented by lucid dreams and fearing for his mental health. Things go from bad to worse when he receives a picture of a stick figure with a noose round its neck in the post – and then Mickey returns to the town, claiming to know the identity of the killer and asking for Eddie’s help to write a book about the case. Strong characterisation, plenty of plot twists and an evocative portrait of small-town life in the 1980s add up to a riveting read.
© Laura Wilson, 2018