In the Exmoor village of Shipcott darkness is afoot. Elderly resident Margaret Priddy, unable to move since a riding accident three years earlier, dies in her bed one night. When the doctor suggests she was smothered rather than dying of natural causes an investigative team is called in from Taunton and village policeman Jonas Holly is cast aside as next to useless. But having the ‘real cops’, led by DCI Marvel, on hand doesn’t stop more murders of the infirm or elderly from occurring. Although set in the same village as the events of Bauer’s brilliant debut, Blacklands, and though one of that novel’s two main characters does make a brief appearance here, this is not a sequel. It’s just a very dark book standing all alone.
I love the way Bauer writes. My copy of the book is scattered with little post-it thingies identifying passages I thought were sweet, funny, sad, biting or just plain brilliant. She seems to manage to convey a whole lot with few words which, in these days of 500+ page chunkster books being ‘the norm’, is a skill I admire more and more. How about
The detectives from Taunton must watch a lot of American television too, thought Jonas, as he observed them striding through Margaret Priddy’s tiny home, bumping into antiques, clustering in the hallway and thumping up and down the narrow stairs like US Marines invading a potting shed.
That short passage tells you so much about the surroundings and the people. And it’s funny too. Or how about this for a description of a character, DCI Marvel, that tells you everything you need to know about the man in as few words as possible:
At home he had Sky on a 48-inch screen, complete with a set ofAcoustic Energy Aelite 3 home-cinema speakers. There were six in the set and they easily filled the spaces left by Debbie’s furniture.
There’s much more of the same which combines to tell a compelling tale of secrets and what happens when you keep too many of them.
The other thing I love about Bauer’s books are the characters. Each one of them, whether shining star or bit-player, is lovingly crafted. Jonas Holly with his need to protect ‘his’ village, frustration at being unable to help his wife (who has multiple sclerosis), shame at his sidelining by the Taunton cops is both highly credible and sympathetic (I can’t be the only reader who wanted to wrap the man in a week-long bear hug). Marvel is complex too, as there is more to him than the bully we first meet, though he’s never particularly likable. Though it is probably Lucy Holly, Jonas’ formerly physically super-fit wife and now only able to travel upstairs on her bum (it takes her so long she leaves a book half-way up the stairs for reading while resting), who is the standout character for me. Bauer seems to have captured the competing emotions such a person might go through quite perfectly.
The thing I am not so keen on with respect to this book is the ending which was exactly the wrong combination of implausible and ‘thriller-ish’ to put it out of kilter with the rest of the thoughtful and thought-provoking book. I can’t say more without giving away huge plot spoilers but it was disappointing. I wouldn’t let it put you off reading it though as the rest (all bar the last dozen or so pages) is outstanding. I’ll happily order the next book just as soon as I can.
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My rating 4/5
Author website http://www.belindabauer.co.uk/
Publisher Bantam 
Length 359 pages
Book Series standalone
Source I bought it