Susan Lewis is so prolific. I first came across her writing when I was looking for something to read between counselling clients at work. At the MS Therapy Centre where I worked there was a charity shop and someone had brought in a huge pile of books for sale. There I found a few books by this author. I’d never read her before but soon found myself hooked and bought all the Susan Lewis books in the bag. I’ve read most novels since and love joining blog tours for her latest books. This is another delve into crime fiction for Lewis and is based around a community on the south coast called Kesterley-On-Sea, where a small group of people have cultivated some very complex relationships. There’s Jeannie, who works as a publisher, and her husband Guy who is a neurosurgeon and they live at Howarth Hall, a Manor House with beautiful gardens leading to the sea. Not far away, lives Estelle a celebrated debut novelist who hasn’t managed to produce a follow up as yet, and her husband Neil who is a landscape gardener. They have a daughter, Chloe and Estelle’s assistant Primrose lives in an annexe next door. Centre of the community is the Seaview Café where the owner Fliss lives in an apartment above with her son Zac. Jeannie used to be Estelle’s publisher. Neil is Jeannie’s gardener and friend. Fliss used to be married to Neil and he is Zac’s father. When Jeannie goes missing one January day all of these relationships will come under scrutiny. Trying to make sense of this is Cara Jakes, a new trainee investigator who is young, intelligent and eager to prove herself. When she teams up with detective Andee Lawrence to look into the disappearance, she is determined to find out what has really happened to Jeannie. Cara begins to question the residents of this close-knit community, sure that someone has a secret to hide. However, how can she separate the truth within these complicated connections, especially when some of them are lying?
Lewis has undertaken a very difficult task with this novel, not only does she have complicated relationships to untangle, she moves us back and forth to the months leading up to Jeannie’s disappearance and the weeks following. Then she sets it all within the pandemic, which must have been a nightmare to track considering the complicated rules and lockdown dates. I barely know what I was doing and where I was over the past couple of years, never mind following imaginary people through the same rules and regulations. It did make the story more believable though and I was amused to read how difficult these characters found it to interpret and stick to the rules. I don’t think there’s a single character who doesn’t break them at some point, but it’s café owner Fliss who is finding the pandemic the most difficult. Having started her business just before the outbreak, the lockdowns have damaged her financially and without the help of a group of volunteers taking food out in deliveries the business wouldn’t be making any money at all. Her son Zac is also helping and has moved in with her for lockdown, though he usually lives with his dad Neil and Estelle. I think Fliss was the character I most felt for and I was sure there was a secret to why she was living alone and how her marriage to Neil fell apart, when they are clearly both so fond of each other. Despite these secrets, Fliss and Neil feel the most understandable and empathic characters in the novel for me.
Our missing person, Jeannie, is a dynamic professional woman, who I found interesting but difficult to understand. When Cara and Andee first visit her husband Guy they’re confused about the delay in reporting her missing. He explains how their demanding jobs mean they can often miss each other for a couple of days, but he also says something very strange. He suggests that Jeannie might want him to think she’s missing as some sort of test. She’s also made it clear that she finds their gardener Neil attractive and takes long walks with him. There’s an element of game playing going on in their relationship and I’m not sure I liked either of them very much. There is a strained relationship between her and Estelle too, as Jeannie published her novel but then dropped her when a follow up wasn’t forthcoming. Their relationship never recovered so Jeannie’s long walks with Estelle’s husband seem unkind. Yet there are secrets in Jeannie’s past that might explain her character, and they explosively come to light when her brother arrives from New Zealand. I found Estelle a puzzle too. She seems fragile and easily distressed, but also self-centred and very difficult to bond with. Her only friend seems to be her assistant Primrose, but she’s paid to be there. I could see she was insecure in her relationship with Neil, believing him still in love with Fliss, so when she is offered friendship from an unlikely source she jumps at the chance of some outside support. Her relationship with her daughter seems awkward too, as if she’s almost scared to be her mum. Lewis untangles this particular thread slowly and with great care, and it’s clever how it’s woven into Estelle’s character, but also the case the police are pursuing.
I don’t want to reveal any more about the entanglements between these characters, but there are many revelations along the way, both in the past and the present. I found it hard to like any of them, aside from Fliss, but they are fascinating. The dual timeline is clever because it keeps the tension of the case and all it’s twists and turns, while also exploring characters and events in more detail in the past. The women’s characters and backgrounds are explored enough to answer a lot of the questions that cropped up in my mind as I was reading. I didn’t feel the men’s past or motivations were explored as closely so I came away feeling I didn’t know them as well. However, that did make it more exciting when they were questioned as suspects, because they were more of a mystery. We also saw how the female investigation team of Andee and Cara have to draw a line between their work and their private lives, very difficult in a small town where everybody knows each other and uses the same facilities. I didn’t work out what had happened to Jeannie before the team did, because when everyone is lying and holding secrets it’s hard to know what’s coming next. I felt like someone was hiding in plain sight, never showing their true character. This was an enjoyable thriller, full of psychologically complex characters making dreadful mistakes and one clever and manipulative suspect to unmask.
Meet the Author
Susan Lewis is the internationally bestselling author of over forty books across the genres of family drama, thriller, suspense and crime, including I Have Something To Tell You, One Minute Later, My Lies, Your Lies and Forgive Me. Susan’s novels have sold over three million copies in the UK alone. 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.
Susan has previously worked as a secretary in news and current affairs before training as a production assistant working on light entertainment and drama. She’s lived in Hollywood and the South of France, but now resides in Gloucestershire with husband James, two stepsons and dog, Mimi. @susanlewisbooks