The latest Susan Lewis is a little different, in that it has all the usual family drama, but with the added element of a police procedural. The Crayce family live down in the south west of the country, on the moors in Devon and come across as a very privileged family. The land they own encompasses three houses, two lots of stables, a farm, a ménage and a shooting school. The family businesses allow eldest brother David and his wife Annabelle to send their children to private school, holiday abroad every year and be the envy of the locals. David and his brother Henry grew up in the main house, and were the basis of a local social group ‘The Moorauders’. Good looking and well off, this pair were the catch of the county. It raised eyebrows, and tempers, when David married an outsider, Annabelle- known as Annie. However, she is now part of the furniture and an irreplaceable part of the family’s business empire looking after the admin for the shooting school, farm and Julia’s horse and donkey sanctuary. Julia is Henry’s second wife and is probably Annie’s best friend, often popping across for coffee or to ‘cocktail me up’ at the end of a hard day. From a distance this family has it all, but is everything as perfect as it seems? When David and Annie’s daughter Sienna is picked up by the police for shoplifting a teddy bear, an ugly truth at the centre of the Crayce family comes to the fore.
Twenty years before, when David was engaged to Annie, the two brothers and their father went on an alcohol fuelled bender that ended in a party at the farmhouse. A few weeks later, local teenager Karen Lomax is found dead in an old railway carriage. A precocious teenager, who displayed a wild streak, died of a blow to the head and her murderer has never been found. Now that police have Sienna’s DNA sample, they are shocked to find a link to this old, unsolved case. One of the Crayce men left a trace of themselves behind, a sample of semen from Karen’s clothing shows a familial match to the Crayce’s. This puts David, Henry, and their father Dickie in the spotlight as suspects. Until their DNA is compared to the sample, the family will have to wait and in those two weeks, secrets and lies are revealed.
I found the novel a little slow at first, and having little patience with the champagne and pearls set, I found it hard to warm to the characters or their situation. So it really is down to the skill of this writer that I started to warm to Annie. I felt like she had gone through an awful lot with David, especially in the early years before the children. There were hints of psychological issues linked to David’s military service, which would have been around the time of the Balkan War. Annie describes sudden mood changes, a tendency to drink too much, nightmares and rages. While he had never physically hit her, she did worry about being in the wrong place when he had a nightmare. These episodes were the lost hours of the novel’s title. She had also struggled with his behaviour when drunk and there were even hints of his infidelity on these occasions. At the time of the farmhouse party they were very close to getting married, and there was a consensus in both families that if he messed up again she would call off the wedding. I felt like Annie was very used to listening to others, and making sure their needs were met, from the children and family to friends. Even her relationship with sister-in-law Julia is based very much on her arriving to have a drink and have her problems with Henry listened to. I kept waiting for her to have an epiphany and recognise her own needs in this nightmare, especially when the police’s focus starts to narrow.
My main concern was the voice that felt absent from the tale and I felt that was a deliberate choice on the part of the author. Murder victims don’t get to have a voice anymore and that’s what Lewis was trying to portray. The one person who had all the answers, couldn’t give them and had to rely on doctors and forensic experts to let us know what happened and at whose hands. However, we would never have her account or thought process and I really felt that absence, especially when old wine bar customers are saying she dressed provocatively or had fantasies that weren’t appropriate. Yet, there isn’t the same disapproval of the much older men who recognised and took advantage of her open nature and strong sex drive. There’s a deeply sad moment when her father says that they still loved her anyway, despite her wild side. I wanted to take him aside and say ‘of course you did and you shouldn’t have to apologise for that’. There was an obvious comparison between Annie and David’s daughter who was a similar age to Karen when she made her shoplifting mistake. The local police allowed Sienna to apologise to the shopkeeper and make financial recompense. Her family connections seemed to let her off lightly. Would Karen have been offered the same way out, if she had made a similar mistake? Karen paid for her teenage mistakes with her life. I think Lewis was pointing out the gender differences and the class differences in these areas. David and Henry, and to some extent their father, were living a teenage life full of parties, alcohol and risky sex, but they weren’t censured by those around them. Their women tended to forgive them and they didn’t lose their social or financial standing locally. It isn’t just a question of gender, but highlights the difference between land and property owners, and those who live in the suburbs or the council estates.
Our other ‘outsider’ is DS Natalie Rundle, new to the area and having to hit the ground running with this unexpected cold case, suddenly becoming red hot. She isn’t local so she doesn’t have the same preconceptions or the same loyalties. Without her, this case might never be solved, because she asks the difficult questions and never rules anyone out. In fact I didn’t expect the outcome, so the author was able to surprise me. Though when I thought about the themes I’d pulled out of the narrative, such as class, difference and wanting to belong, it did seem to fit. I found this novel successful because it was the usual ‘Aga saga’ we expect from Lewis, but with some edge. It questions whether these perfect lifestyles can ever be that perfect behind the scenes. It shows that where there is an ‘in’ crowd, there are those longing to join or feeling they just don’t make the cut. She also identifies an exploitation of young women from outside the posh clique. I think this is why the chapters beyond the murderer being unmasked are so important. They’re about different elements in this community coming together, creating equality and for a teenager like Sienna to remember and honour a young girl who went before her. Yes, these conversations are uncomfortable, but there’s an element of owning past behaviour and trying to make amends. Forcing themselves to be uncomfortable is the only way change will happen. This element of justice having to be served in the community as well as court, was an interesting one and really gave this novel the edge for me.
Meet The Author
Susan Lewis is the internationally bestselling author of over forty books across the genres of family drama, thriller, suspense and crime. She is also the author of Just One More Day and One Day at a Time, the moving memoirs of her childhood in Bristol during the 1960s. Following periods of living in Los Angeles and the South of France, she currently lives in Gloucestershire with her husband, James and mischievous dogs, Coco and Lulu.
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