BY Sharon Bolton (Bantam) OUT 20 April
Checking out Sharon Bolton’s Dead Woman Walking, plus the latest books from Denise Mina, Chris Brookmyre, Mick Herron and many more.
“A slippery, devious story in which things are not always what they seem”
Anyone who’s read Ian Mcewan’s Enduring Love will have found it hard to forget the book’s traumatic ballooning disaster. With Dead Woman Walking, Sharon Bolton seems determined to top that with a horrific opening that feels like the moment of impending doom in a disaster movie. Over 30 breathless pages, you experience every violent jolt as 12 passengers lose control of their hot air balloon over Northumberland National Park. Their frayed tempers are a prelude to a crash landing in which everything seems to go wrong, from the power lines in the way to the loss of the radio connection that might have saved them.
In a malevolent twist, this is a tragedy brought about by one man, Patrick Faa, a trilbywearing psychopath from a local Romany family. When the ballooning tourists witness him attacking a woman, his response is swift and precise: he takes aim with a rifle and shoots the pilot.
Still, it should be an uneven match – a hot air balloon might easily escape a man on the ground. But Faa has a quad bike and an expert knowledge of the sparse terrain near the Scottish border, while the remaining witnesses he wants to neutralise are frantically trying to work out which coloured cord to pull in order to escape the killer.
It appears to be a random act of extreme violence, though Bolton’s standalone novel is a slippery, devious narrative in which things are not always what they seem.
Jessica Lane, a key witness on the balloon trip, has a crucial photo of the attacker – and what’s more, she recognises him. When the authorities realise there may be an injured survivor who’s walked away from the crash scene, both the police and Faa begin their own separate hunts for Jessica.
The risk for a thriller with such an arresting opening is that what follows will never quite match the early chapters. But the assured plotting and careful withholding of information keep you reading in order to discover why the survivor of a balloon crash might be reluctant to call the police. As well as that central mystery, Bolton establishes a forbidding atmosphere of rural terror and an intriguing backstory featuring a very resourceful nun. There’s a final rush of resolutions, but Bolton keeps a grip on her compelling narrative as the shocking nature of the investigation is revealed. You might guess one of the twists, but not all of them – though in the best crime tradition, the clues are all there for you in plain sight.