In 1988, when Olive Collins was twenty-six and wanted to buy a house of her own she couldn’t afford one in the village where she’d grown up. However, she did find a small, isolated cottage on the outskirts, in an area known as Withered Vale. At first she’d loved the remoteness and her single life but as time went on, and she faced up to the fact that she was likely to remain a spinster, she became lonely and longed for company. So in 2001, when the land surrounding her cottage was sold to a developer who planned on creating an exclusive gated-community, comprising just six large, luxury homes, she was delighted that she would at last have close neighbours. The developer agreed to building the individually-designed houses in a semi-circle around her home, even adding the same hedge border as hers around each of the new houses in order to make her cottage, now No.4 Withered Vale, appear an integral part of the development.
As the years passed she tried so hard to be friendly with her neighbours but there appeared to be little community spirit in the close. Then, in June 2017, her rotting body was discovered after a mass of bluebottles was seen emerging from the chimney of No.4. She had been dead for three months but why had none of her neighbours checked up on her? Had they even noticed that she hadn’t been around for months? Although it initially appeared that she had died of a heart attack, as the police began to investigate, it emerged that every single air-vent had been sealed with clear tape and that, with a deliberately blocked flue, her gas boiler had been spewing out carbon monoxide. Had the heart-attack in fact been brought on by the fumes? Had Olive taped up the vents herself, meaning to commit suicide, or had someone else done it, intending to kill her? Clearly there are questions which need to be answered and it isn’t long before the two detectives investigating her death discover that each of the neighbours has something to hide, that each of them had had some sort of falling-out with Olive in the months before her death, meaning that each had a clear motive for wanting her dead.
With its very short chapters, which tell the story from the perspectives of the two detectives, the various neighbours and through the occasional use of Olive’s voice, I found that I quickly became engaged with this gradually unfolding mystery, soon feeling caught up in the lives of this group of disparate people. Although the plotting was, in many ways, predictable, I enjoyed the way in which the author slowly peeled back the layers of “respectability” to reveal that everyone in the small community had secrets they were desperate to hide.
Olive’s reflections added a different perspective, as well as layers of depth, to all the interactions she’d had with her neighbours during the time they’d all lived in Withered Vale. It quickly became clear that although she had been desperate for friendship and had tried many ways of getting close to people, she was someone who was very skilful at winkling-out other people’s secrets, lies and weaknesses and then using that knowledge as a weapon with which to exert control over them.
Although the back-stories of all the characters were well-portrayed and for the most part credible, at times I did feel that my credulity was being stretched by the sheer number of dramatic secrets which were being revealed from within such a small group of people! However, even if caricaturised at times, there was enough to recognise in each of the characters to make me want to understand the reasons behind their behaviour, the ways in which they’d been affected by their interactions with Olive, and the impact this had had on their relationships with family and friends.
I particularly enjoyed the relationship which developed between the two detectives. Frank Brazil is 53 years old and, looking forward to retiring in three months’ time, his one wish being that the case will turn out to be straightforward and be tied up quickly. He decided to retire early because he feels so sad and weary; he knows that his reserves of empathy have drained away and, as any sensible copper knows, that’s the time you should go. However, his fellow officer, 28-year-old Detective Emma Child, is at the start of her career, still ambitious, and enthusiastically keen to ensure that no stone is left unturned in their investigation. It soon becomes clear that, with something of her enthusiasm rubbing off on him and his greater experience tempering her tendency to make snap judgements, the dynamics of their interdependence enable them to see behind the respectable facades of their suspects and to untangle the mystery of Olive’s death.
This is the first of Jo Spain’s novels which I’ve read and although it was in many ways an undemanding read, I was impressed by her ability to create an ongoing tension in her story-telling, mainly through her well-controlled revelations of her characters secrets and inner-lives. I also very much enjoyed some of her humorous reflections on the lifestyles and pretensions of her characters, and of the social milieu which facilitated these observations. I found it a very visual story, to the extent that all the time I was reading I could imagine it being dramatised, either as a television series or a full-length film.
There is a final twist to the end of the story which is not only clever, but full of a delicious, if rather sad, irony, making this an entertaining psychological thriller.
Linda Hepworth 4/3*
Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain
978-1-78747-432-1 Quercus Hachette UK Hardback February 2019