This book is one of my picks for the autumn and I really did pick an absolute cracker of a crime novel. It’s chilling, atmospheric and incredibly clever, especially at weaving the setting into the story. I read this straight through and halfway through my binge read I had to look it up and check that it really was a stand-alone novel. Sadie Levesque is a compelling central character: brave, resourceful, determined, intelligent and ever so slightly impulsive. I could easily imagine her as the backbone of a great crime series. Sadie is a private investigator based in Canada where she’s about to be the birth partner for her sister. She has time to fit in one last job, which takes her to Scotland and the atmospheric island of Mull. The Clark family recently moved to Mull from the United States to start a new life, but their plans have been derailed by the disappearance of their seventeen year old daughter Adriana. With her American accent and dark Latino looks, Adriana caused a stir among the teenagers of Mull and was very noticeable in her job at the local pub. Her desperate parents feel the local police force are doing very little to look for their daughter, possibly because they are outsiders. When Sadie finds the girl’s body while searching local teen hang outs, the police become hostile. Adriana has been drowned. The killer has sexually assaulted her, adorned her with a seaweed crown and filled her mouth and throat full of sand. Sadie’s immediate thought is she’s been silenced. Without police cooperation, Sadie must find the killer and is drawn into a mix of local folklore, witches, a misogynistic priest and a community that looks after it’s own. Will Adriana be the last girl to die?
The island is definitely a character in it’s own right here. It even narrates it’s own chapters. Nature is in every part of the book, starting with Sadie who seems more comfortable outside than in. She feels more powerful out there, sleeping in a tent and lurking around in the dead of night, observing the islanders. For the island’s teenagers, the beaches and stone circles become the backdrop for their vigils and parties. Of course Adriana is also found outdoors, in a cave adorned with the plants and products of the sea. There’s something folkloric about the way she is posed and especially the sand, which Sadie finds out is part of ancient lore dating back to the 16th Century if not further. It is part of a ritualistic killing, if her mouth is full of sand she can’t utter the truth about what or who killed her. It is a method used by witches to silence those who might identify them. The outdoors and the sea is in these people’s DNA for generations, many are fishermen and one of the island’s legends is of a ship from Spain that was wrecked on the coast of Mull. On board was a Spanish princess who had dreamed of a beautiful man on a Scottish island and saw him as they reached the shore at Tobermory and fell instantly in love. The man’s wife saw the look in the princess’s eyes and called on the Mull Witch who destroyed the vessel, killing all 300 souls on board. History tells us that the boat was part of the armada and that islanders sank the vessel, a terrible end for the sailors who were seeking help. These deaths, from the 16th century to the present leave their mark. The island is a living thing, we are told, it feels everything. I loved the poetic way the author writes in the island’s sections:
‘Sea deaths bring furious tides. The waves slap the sides of boats, knocking the sailors from port to starboard, and the fish thrash so hard they break nets. Shells smash, scattering vicious fragments on beaches to slice careless feet. Salty tears form an ocean.’
It’s following her instinct and looking into the death of a young woman years before that first sparks the idea of witchcraft. Flora Kydd’s father laments in the village pub that his daughter’s death was glossed over by the police. Her killer had never been found. Sadie finds the Kydd’s house covered with posies of flowers to deter witchcraft and dark symbols burned into the beams to ward off the evil eye. I loved the way the author paired witchcraft with feminism, showing a deep seated misogyny in some of the islands men, particularly the local priest. Sadie stumbles across a group of women in a forest clearing, late at night. They are naked, but covered in clay, dancing around a fire. Their leader, Hilda, talks to Sadie at length dismissing the idea of darker witchcraft and claiming to be a women’s group, offering support and learning the old healing ways of nature. They protest at a community meeting where women have been told they have a curfew and should stay indoors after dark. Hilda has a strong position on this, maybe men should stop killing women. Sadie’s thoughts are going in two different directions. Could Adriana have been killed by unscrupulous members of Hilda’s group who were pressuring her to join in? Or had she become one of the women dancing around the fire and been killed because she was deemed a witch? There are some twists to the final stages that came as a huge shock. I love to be surprised and I really was here, with my heart sat in my throat at times. Could the truth be more prosaic than the legends? That men kill and could use the excuse of ancient folklore and witchcraft to cover their tracks. I was torn between this more logical explanation and the sense of an ancient evil at play on this remote and wild island. If anyone knows, the island does.
Published by Avon 1st September 2022.
Meet the Author.
Helen is a former criminal and family law barrister. Every book in her brilliant Callanach series has claimed an Amazon #1 bestseller flag. The last book in the series, ‘Perfect Kill’ was longlisted for the Crime Writers Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger in 2020, and others have been longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize, Scottish crime novel of the year. Helen also writes as HS Chandler, and has released legal thriller ‘Degrees of Guilt’. Her audio book ‘Perfect Crime’ knocked Michelle Obama off the #1 spot. In 2020 Perfect Remains was shortlisted for the Bronze Bat, Dutch debut crime novel of the year. Now translated into 16 languages, and also selling in the USA, Canada & Australasia, Helen’s books have won global recognition. Her historical thriller ‘These Lost & Broken Things’ came out in May 2020. Her first standalone thriller – The Shadow Man – from HarperColllins was published on February 4, 2021. She currently commutes between West Sussex, Scotland and California. She lives with her husband and three children. Helen can be found on Twitter @Helen_Fields for up to date news and information or at http://www.helenfields.co.uk.