Marking the release of the paperback edition of Mark Hill’s compelling debut thriller, Two O’Clock Boy, here’s a timely reminder of why the Raven liked this one so much…

One night changed their lives…
Thirty years ago, the Longacre Children’s Home stood on a London street where once-grand Victorian homes lay derelict. There its children lived in terror of Gordon Tallis, the home’s manager.

Cries in the fire and smoke…
Then Connor Laird arrived: a frighteningly intense boy who quickly became Tallis’ favourite criminal helper. Soon after, destruction befell the Longacre, and the facts of that night have lain buried . . . until today.

A truth both must hide…
Now, a mysterious figure, the Two O’Clock Boy, is killing all who grew up there, one by one. DI Ray Drake will do whatever it take to stop the murders – but he will go even further to cover up the truth…

Casting aside his nom de plume of Crime Thriller Fella, former blogger, Mark Hill marches stridently onto the crime fiction scene with a debut that is compelling and intriguing, and perhaps more importantly a damn good read.  With one of the most ominous and chilling openings that I have encountered this year, as the story draws you in, you would be forgiven for thinking that this would then appear to be a pretty standard London set police procedural. But you’d be wrong. Oh yes, and here’s why…

There is a pernicious killer at work in old London town with the self-styled monicker of the Two O’clock Boy, the reasons for which are gradually unfurled in a real smoke and mirrors tale of childhood abuse, combined with slick police procedural. With its intertwining timelines, depicting the less than savoury goings on at a children’s home some years previously, and the spotlight on DI Ray Drake and his team to solve the current murders, the links between the past and Drake’s own personal history are neatly threaded together. With some degree of frustration, this is one of those books that thwarts the reviewer at every turn, without stepping in a big pile of spoilers, but suffice to say Drake proves an interesting and damaged conduit between past and present, and his character is never less than intriguing and utterly instrumental to this reader’s enjoyment of the book. The plotting is consistently superb, tinged with a real darkness that unsettles and disturbs throughout, and the pacing and balance between the two gradually revealed interconnected time periods is beautifully weighted.

Likewise, the characterisation of both the police protagonists, and the characters connected to the children’s home, both in the past and present is assuredly done. Hill captures not only the naivety, false bravery, and emotional fragility of the children’s personalities, but how this shapes and moulds them and their experiences on reaching adulthood. It’s sensitively and realistically handled, despite the darkness of his central plot, and I guarantee that when certain truths are revealed about this period in some of the protagonist’s lives, your sense of empathy will be roundly manipulated. As I have alluded to, the character of Drake is of tantamount importance to the whole plot, as is the multi-faceted nature of his personality that he presents to the world. I also liked his sidekick, DS Flick Crowley, whose exasperation with Drake, and some personal issues of her own, provide a bit more colour to the whole affair, and provide a strong partnership for future investigations.

So, pleased to report that Two O’Clock Boy delivers on so many levels, with emotional depth,  strong characters, and an effective and suspense-building use of contrasting timelines, to carry the plot along at a pleasing pace. The Raven recommends. Highly.

But don’t just take my word for it, and have a look at the extract below. Intrigued you will be…

PROLOGUE:
The English Channel, 1986
The boy loved his parents more than anything on this Earth. And so he had to kill them.

Perched on the edge of the bunk, he listened to them now. To the squeak of their soles on the deck above as they threw recriminations back and forth in voices as vicious as the screeching seagulls wheeling in the sky. He heard the crack of the sail in the wind, the smack of the water against the hull inches from his head, a soothing, hypnotic rhythm.

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . . .

Before everything went wrong, before the boy went away as one person and came back as someone different, they had been full of gentle caresses and soft words for each other. But they argued all the time now, his parents – too stridently, loud enough for him to hear – and the quarrel was always about the same thing: what could be done about their unhappy son?

He understood that they wanted him to know how remorseful they were about what had happened. But their misery only made him feel worse. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to speak to them, to utter a single word, and the longer he stayed silent the more his parents fought. The boy plugged his fingers into his ears, closed his eyes, and listened to the dull roar within him.

His love for them was untethering, drifting away on a fierce tide.

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . . .

A muffled voice. ‘Darling.’

The boy’s hands were pulled gently from his face. His mother crouched before him. Her eyes were rimmed red, and her hair was plastered to her face by sea spray, but she was still startlingly beautiful.

‘Why don’t you come up top?’

Her cold fingers tucked a loose strand of his hair behind his ear. For a brief moment he felt a familiar tenderness, wanted to clasp her to him and ignore the bitter thoughts that churned in his head. But he didn’t, he couldn’t. It had been weeks since he’d been able to speak.

A shadow fell across the hatch. His father’s voice boomed, ‘Is he coming up?’

‘Please, let me handle this,’ his mother barked over her shoulder, and after a moment of hesitation, the shadow disappeared.

‘We’re doing the best we can.’ She waited for her son to speak. ‘But you must tell us how you feel, so that we can help you.’

The boy managed a small nod, and hope flickered in his mother’s gaze.

‘Your father and I . . . we love you more than anything. If we argue it’s because we can never forgive ourselves for what happened to you. You know that, don’t you?’

Her eyes filled with tears, and he would do anything to stop her from crying. In a cracked voice, barely more than a whisper, he heard himself say, ‘I love you.’

His mother’s hand flew to her mouth. She stood, hunched in the cabin. ‘We’re about to eat sandwiches.’

Moving to the steps, she spoke brightly, but her voice trembled.

‘Why don’t you come up when you’re ready?’

He nodded. With a last, eager smile, his mother climbed to the hatch and her body was consumed by sunlight.

The boy’s heel thudded against the clasp of the toolbox beneath his berth. He pulled out the metal box and tipped open the lid to reveal his father’s tools. Rasps, pliers, a spirit level. Tacks and nails, a chisel slick with grease. Lifting the top tray, the heavier tools were revealed: a saw, a screwdriver, a peen hammer. The varnish on the handle of the hammer was worn away. The wood was rough, its mottled head pounded to a dull grey. He lifted it, felt its weight in his palm.

Clenching the hammer in his fist, he stooped beneath the bulkhead – in the last couple of years he’d grown so much taller – to listen to the clink of plastic plates, his parents’ animated voices on the deck.

‘Sandwiches are ready!’ called his mother.

Every night he had the same dream, like a terrible premonition: his parents passed him on the street without a glance, as if they were total strangers. Sooner or later, he knew, this nightmare would become a reality. The resentment they felt that their child had gone for ever, replaced by somebody else, someone ugly inside, would chip away at their love for him. Until there was nothing left.

And he was afraid that his own fierce love for them was slowly rotting, corroded by blame and bitterness. One day, when it was gone completely, other emotions would fill the desolate space inside him. Fury, rage. A cold, implacable hatred. Already he felt anger swelling like a storm where his love had been. He couldn’t bear to hate them, yearned to keep his love for his parents – and his memories of a happy time before he went to that place – uncorrupted, and to carry it with him into an uncertain future.

And so he had to act.

Gripping the hammer, the boy moved towards the hatch. His view filled with the blinding grey of the sky and the blur of the wheeling gulls, which screamed a warning to him that this world would always snatch from him the things he cherished, that life would always be this way. He stepped onto the windblown deck in the middle of a sea that went on for ever.

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . .

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