Raven Crime Reads is delighted to be the first stop on the SJI Holliday Black Wood blog tour- a debut crime novel that more than lives up to the promise of being a dark and extremely compelling psychological thriller. Inspired by a disturbing incident in the author’s own childhood, Black Wood explores the lives of two young women, Jo and Claire, deeply affected by an event that happened to them in their younger years in the local woods. This distressing incident left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars, but due to Claire’s memory loss, how much is Jo’s version of what happened to be trusted? Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the local bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for revenge. At the same time, popular local police officer, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a man who is attacking women near the disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun. But how is this man connected to Jo’s unwelcome visitor, and will the dependable Gray unravel the tangled web of secrets and lies to keep Jo safe and give her justice? And just who will survive the violence that must surely follow?
I should really start by saying how much I applaud Holliday in taking the decision to present us with a cast of characters who are all so singularly dislikeable. They range in character from self-absorbed, to screwed-up, from emotionally crippled to inherently evil, and all the worst points in-between. If I were to encounter any of them in real life, I would not seek their company again, but within the confines of this book, I liked them all immensely. I loved the premise of having this collection of oddball personalities, whether shaped by unfortunate experience or just as a result of their natural weirdness, in this claustrophobic community, and the fact that as a reader you could remain largely unaffected by their trials and tribulations. I was very much put in mind of a brilliant drama series from years ago, Cape Wrath, which instilled a similar feeling as to the largely nasty characters within it, but remained compulsive viewing. I liked the feeling of being unencumbered by empathy with Jo, in particular, and rather enjoyed the fact that she inhabited the role of victim, but had a rather unpleasant and manipulative streak to her. She seemed to wield some strange hypnotic effect over most of the male characters, including the dogged Sergeant Gray who was probably the only character registering at all on the niceness scale. The assured characterisation of such a cast of dark and twisted people was a real strength of the book overall, and as much as I disliked them, I derived great satisfaction from seeing into their lives- the good and the bad.
I liked the unfolding complexity of the characters connections to one another within the central plot. I did read quite a way into the book with not the faintest clue as to how it would pan out, and I thought Holliday’s control of reveals was incredibly well-handled, keeping my interest throughout, as we became further embroiled in the nasty dark secrets and lies at the heart of this community. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the explosion of violence towards the end of the book, but no matter, as what proceeded it was more than satisfying. Oh- and there is a good twist right at the end of the book. I love it when that works, and this one did. All in all, a good debut, that contains all the necessary tension, and unwelcome surprises of a thoroughly enjoyable psychological thriller. Seek this one out and you won’t be disappointed I’m sure. Here’s an extract to tempt you further…
He spots the two girls through the cracked screen of beech, sycamore and leg-scratching gorse: a flash of red skirt and a unison of giggles.
He waves a hand behind him, silently gesturing for the other boy to stop walking.
They hunker down behind a giant felled oak, and watch. The one with the red skirt sits astride a rusty water pipe that juts out through the hard-packed mud on either side of the burn. Her long, skinny legs dangle like the branches of a weeping willow, her sandalled feet almost skimming the water that bubbles beneath.
‘Come on, scaredy-cat!’
Her face is turned in the direction of the far bank, watching the path that runs down the side of the neat little row of square seventies housing where all the nice families live with their panel-fenced back gardens and their rabbit hutches and their Swingball sets. Where the other girl stands: shorter, plumper and dressed in denim dungarees and a pair of blue wellingtons.
‘I can’t. It’s too fast.’
The water is high from the rain that has barely stopped for weeks. The ground is soggy, and the boys’ footsteps have disturbed the mulch on the floor of the wood, releasing a stink that reminds him of clothes that’ve been left too long in the washing machine mixed with the tang of fresh grass from the bucket on his dad’s lawnmower.
He hears the snap of a twig close behind him and whirls round.
‘Ssssh, you idiot. Don’t let them hear us.’
The other boy mumbles a sorry.
The girl with the red skirt turns back to face the wood and he holds his breath, desperate not to make a sound. She frowns and shakes her head and dark little curls bob around her face. She is younger than he is. A couple of years. Maybe the same age as the pudgy-faced one in the dungarees, but even from this distance he can tell she’s going to be a heartbreaker before long. He stares at the long bare legs straddling the pipe and feels the stirring in his trousers that’s becoming increasingly familiar.
The other girl takes a tentative step towards the pipe.
‘I’m not going over it like you,’ she says haughtily. ‘I’ll get my dungarees dirty.’
The other girl lets out a dirty little laugh and shuffles over to the end of the pipe, then leans forward and grabs the protruding roots of the ancient oak that overhangs the waterway. As she pulls herself up, the front of her baggy T-shirt gapes open and he strains his eyes to see what’s concealed beneath. The other one steps onto the pipe and, with arms outstretched like a tightrope walker, slowly makes her way across, until she is close enough to grab onto her friend’s outstretched hand.
He waits until they are both safely away from the bank before he grabs the sleeve of the other boy and they both stand up. The smaller girl sees them first and she lets out a strange little squeak and jumps back, grabbing onto the other girl’s T-shirt, revealing a flash of milky-white shoulder.
Find out more about the author here
Don’t forget to visit The Welsh Librarian BlogSpot tomorrow for the next stop on the tour…
(With thanks to Black & White Publishing for the ARC)