The Wasdale Valley is the beautiful setting for this unusual crime novel from David Marks, the first in a trilogy set in the Lakes. It is unusual, mainly in its use of language and the mix of crime, social commentary and a touch of the supernatural. My first impression as I started to read was that it reminded me of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels. The opening is almost hallucinatory as a young girl comes to consciousness:
‘There had been a drink. A cold, brown soup slopped from an earthen bowl. It had plants in. Some wormy tuber had touched her lip as she lapped at the brew like a cat with a saucer. Memory again. Music. A guitar on a strap.’
I had an almost visceral reaction to this first passage, a feeling of disgust. The girl comes to realise her consciousness is inside this meat body described as a ‘pig-fat candle’. The sentences are stilted, only growing longer as she wakes more. It sets the reader on edge because it’s synaesthesic – she can taste and feel the heavy air, see her thoughts, and experiences her body through pain and unpleasant sensations. I had to read this opening a few times to fully understand what was happening, but the horror of the earthy face rushing towards her smelling of bad meat definitely stayed with me.
This is a story of a thirty year old mystery as three girls followed a stranger into the woods and only two returned. There were local whispers of drugs, cults and strange rituals but no one really knows what happened and the two who returned remembered nothing. Their memories are shattered into pieces and thy still suffer traumatic flashbacks and hallucinations. This is just the type of story that investigative journalist Rowan Blake needs to revive his career. He has retreated to the Lake District in order to write. Whatever he unearths in the woods will have stayed buried for thirty years, but when he chooses this mystery is he prepared for the evil that awaits him? Rowan is our narrator in the present day timeline and he starts his investigations by using his local contacts, his sister Serendipity and her daughter Snowdrop. All three girls were at the same private school, the Silver Birch Academy, and there are local stories about the school’s unorthodox teaching methods. The girls are rumoured to have followed a stranger into the woods to visit a Shaman, which could explain the strange hallucinatory drink and amnesia.
Our narrator in the past is Violet, explaining her experiences in such detail with layers and layers of disturbing description. Despite Rowan being our protagonist I did find myself waiting for Violet’s chapters. I was both disgusted and fascinated in equal measure and I felt compelled to keep reading to find out what happened. Violet isn’t the easiest person to empathise with; she’s an angry, tempestuous teenager with a tendency to bully others. The fact that she’s not in the present day narrative, due to being away travelling, is a clever choice. It concentrates the reader on her teenage self, but also reinforces the tension as the reader becomes even more determined to find out her fate. Violet has reportedly been trying to come to terms with her experience of late, whereas best friend Catherine is more reticent. I didn’t feel a bond with Rowan and he too has obvious faults. He’s quite selfish, and isn’t really grateful for the help of his sister, even though she’s bailed him out before. It’s a brave thing to have two narrators without any sympathetic qualities, because it could easily turn the reader off, but here it works. As Rowan uncovers more he starts to worry about Violet. Is she really travelling or has she gone missing again?
This is not the sort of thriller you bolt your way through in an afternoon. It needs a longer time, so you can actually savour the language and the horror of what has happened here. It’s complex and black as night. It’s a reading experience that bears a second or third glance; like viewing a large painting, at first we only see the main subject, but as we look closer there is so much more to take in. Here there are quirky secondary characters to enjoy, a wonderful sense of place and very ominous weather that foreshadows Rowan’s findings. It all adds to the conclusion that nothing good happened here.
If you go into the woods, you’re in for a dark surprise….
Meet The Author
David spent more than fifteen years as a journalist, including seven years as a crime reporter with the Yorkshire Post – walking the Hull streets that would later become the setting for the Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy novels. His writing is heavily influenced by real life and have been universally praised for their originality, authenticity and heart. Industry bible Kirkus Reviews said that ‘to call David Mark’s novels police procedurals is like calling the Mona Lisa a pretty painting’. He has been championed by such industry luminaries as Val McDermid, Peter James, Mick Herron and Martina Cole. He has written eight novels in the McAvoy series: Dark Winter, Original Skin, Sorrow Bound, Taking Pity, Dead Pretty, Cruel Mercy, Scorched Earth and Cold Bones as well as two McAvoy novellas, A Bad Death and Fire of Lies, which are available as ebooks. His first historical thriller, The Zealot’s Bones, was a Sunday Times Book of the Year. With publishers Severn House, he has written the critically-acclaimed The Mausoleum, A Rush of Blood, Borrowed Time and Suspicious Minds.
Dark Winter was selected for the Harrogate New Blood panel (where he was Reader in Residence) and was a Richard & Judy pick and a Sunday Times bestseller. Dead Pretty was long-listed for the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 2016, as was Cold Bones in 2019. David’s Radio 4 drama, A Marriage of Inconvenience, aired last year. His first novel was adapted for the stage and was twice a sell-out smash in Hull. He has also written for the stage and has contributed articles and reviews to several national and international publications. He is a regular performer at literary festivals and is a sought-after public speaker. He also teaches creative writing.