In Cambridge, unprecedented numbers of students seem to be killing themselves, or attempting to; more of them than could be expected from peer-emulation cluster suicides. There is clearly something sinister going on and someone must be behind it.
DC Lacey Flint is called in from London to go undercover as an undergraduate and to work with psychiatrist Evi Oliver to find out what lies behind the mysterious rash of deaths. Lacey and Evi are both characters from previous S J Bolton novels, and although reading the others adds depth, Dead Scared can still be treated as a one-off.
A couple of the young women who attempted suicide have survived, and their stories are disturbingly similar. They speak of loss of memory; of bizarre, half-remembered sexual experiences; of a feeling of being watched; of hallucinations and recurrent nightmares featuring their worst terrors. Many of the victims are psychologically fragile and have already sought therapy at various of Cambridge’s counselling services, including Evi’s.
Evi is convalescing from an accident, mostly wheelchair-bound and in constant pain. She is also in mourning for a lost love affair. Lacey has her own demons from the past, some of them centred on her boss for this job, DI Mark Joesbury, with whom she is secretly in love. The two last met in an earlier novel when they were both covered in blood, and there is much fraught history between them. Joesbury, as the reader knows, is himself in love with Lacey, and the sexual and emotional tension between them, although sometimes mildly irritating in its reticence and misunderstandings, adds narrative suspense to what is already an extremely suspenseful novel.
Lacey’s instructions are strictly to observe and report, but inevitably she is drawn into investigating. Joesbury’s attitude to this swings between exasperation, fear for Lacey’s safety and admiration for her persistence:
Christ, only Lacey Flint could be attacked by a rabid kestrel, find dead animals hanging from trees and be ordered off private land by a psychotic farmer all in one afternoon.
A lot is being kept from Lacey that the reader has some insight into. She thinks Joesbury is in London, when we know he is keeping an eye on her in Cambridge and that the operation is far bigger than she suspects. But she and Evi get dangerously close to the truth. Evi remembers another spate of seeming suicides from when she was a medical undergraduate fifteen years ago and they narrow the suspects down to a cohort of her contemporaries.
Both women have also begun to experience nightmares and feelings of invasion. If I have a criticism of this otherwise excellently paced novel, it’s that they are a bit slow to catch on, each blaming herself and her own demons instead of realising that she might have been targeted herself. The penny does eventually drop, but unconvincingly slowly.
Dead Scared is a combination of psychological thriller and police procedural. It begins with a short Prologue in which a young woman is about to throw herself off St Mary’s tower. The narrative then switches to eleven days earlier and recounts the events that have led up to this scene. The novel shifts between Lacey’s first-person narration and a third-person point of view for Evi and other characters in scenes where Lacey is not present. This is a relatively recent method of juxtaposing first and third-person point of view (I first noticed it in the 1990s), increasingly used in crime novels, where it is particularly effective in allowing the reader glimpses of events beyond the narrator’s knowledge, while still keeping the useful limitations of the first person.
There is another narrative interspersed, in italics, from the point of view of a young Welshman who, twenty-three years ago, found his father’s body after a shooting suicide. This fragmented story traces the boy’s life from his schooldays, with their instances of bullying gangs and suicides, to the present, and we find out his name was Iestyn. But we don’t find out until the end who he has become.
This sounds like an excess of narrative styles, time scales and voices, but the different elements cohere well and are expertly placed to create maximum suspense, informing the reader of facts the investigators are still discovering and adding layers of complexity and intrigue to the surface story.
The motivation is clear all along (the trigger, anyway) because of Iestyn’s story, though over the years it has become complicated by greed, blackmail and obsession, but the motive – a fairly standard one in psychological thrillers – is not what drives this plot and is simply summed up by Evi:
‘I think it all started with a very damaged young man, who found some relief from his pain by tormenting and terrifying others. And then somewhere along the line more people got involved and the whole dark business began to feed on itself until it was almost unstoppable.’
The elements that grip the reader are the characters, the complications of the relationships among them and trying to work out which of the possible suspects is guilty – there are several surprises here, nicely seeded with logical hints throughout. The real suspense lies in the danger both women face as they come closer to the truth, in the horrifying unfolding of what happens to the victims, and in wondering whether any of them can be saved.
The writing is clean and crisp and the love-story elements are engaging and unsentimental. Cambridge comes alive in evocative descriptive passages and the weird incidents (like wooden clowns hanging in the forest) make for creepy and compulsive reading. The ending neatly returns to the Prologue, with one more high-suspense twist to the tail. The novel’s well above the usual and a very satisfying read if you like this sort of thing, which I do.
S J Bolton Dead Scared, Bantam, 2012, PB, 384pp, $32.95
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