By the end of the first, immediately engaging, tension-filled, disturbing first chapter, the reader has discovered that every year Detective Dana Russo takes a day’s leave to mark the anniversary of what she thinks of as ‘the Day’. It’s the only day of the year when she allows herself to reflect on something profoundly traumatic which she experienced many years earlier, memories which, for the rest of the year attempts to keep locked away. It immediately becomes clear that whatever happened has shaped her personality; her memories continue to haunt her and, at times, threaten to overwhelm her. Even though they don’t know exactly why, everyone she works with knows that this day is sacrosanct for her. However, just before dawn she is standing, as she did every year, alongside Pulpit Falls, wondering whether it’s worth struggling on with her life … then her phone rings. It’s her boss, Bill Meeks, and he’s asking her to attend a grocery store where the owner had been stabbed to death by a burglar. Her colleague Mike should have been on call but has had to take his young son to hospital so, reluctant though she is, Dana has no option but to respond.
When she arrives at the store, she learns that the murdered man had stayed there overnight, determined to try to catch the person who’d been periodically stealing stock. When the police had responded to the silent alarm which had been triggered, they’d arrived at the scene and discovered a man bent over the body, his hands covered in blood, although there was no sign of any weapon. Apart from giving his name, Nathan Whittler, and saying “sorry” several times, he hadn’t said another word. There’s no firm evidence that he’s the murderer but he’s the only suspect so was arrested at the scene and is now at the police station. He’s refused a lawyer but has been declared fit to be questioned, although the doctor has described him as … “incredibly fragile … a frightened deer”.
Bill Meeks wants Dana to be the lead detective as, fearful that without evidence or a confession, it will be difficult to prove murder, he wants someone who can empathise and believes she’ll have the skills to “prise him open gently”. However, they have just twenty-four hours before the court will force legal representation on him so, allowing for breaks and the required eight hours sleep for the prisoner, she’ll have around five hours of actual face to face contact with him.
Central to this powerfully intense, at times claustrophobic story is the developing relationship between two emotionally damaged people as Dana attempts to get Nathan to trust her and tell her what happened. She gradually discovers that since he disappeared fifteen years earlier, he has lived totally alone, although he won’t say where, and has never spoken to another human being. It’s clear that he’s comfortable with silence but, as someone who understands, and identifies with, how threatening it feels to have someone invade your personal space, she uses her empathetic understanding to make an emotional connection with him and encourage him to open up and gradually, very gradually, Nathan starts to trust her. The fact that he refuses to talk to anyone else puts a huge burden on her, particularly as in order to retain his trust and get him to provide more details about his life and how he came to be at the scene of the crime, she needs to be prepared to expose her own vulnerability.
The increasingly intense interactions between these two characters were, at times, so powerful and moving that I often felt engulfed by their emotional fragility. I found myself wanting to protect them, to find ways to ensure that both would survive a process which was requiring each of them to relinquish their normal defences and make themselves even more vulnerable. It gradually emerged that there were many parallels in the ways each of them had dealt with earlier traumatic experiences in their lives. However, although they shared an emotional vulnerability, as the story developed, I recognised that they also shared some inner-strengths which enabled them to carry on. An exchange early in the story, when they discuss their shared love of reading and the release which can be found from escaping into someone else’s world for a time, being just one example of how a connection was made, but there were many more as the interview sessions continued.
Although the two main characters are the most comprehensively developed in the story, I felt I got to know, and like, all the other members of the team at the police station. I loved how they worked so cooperatively to solve the case, as well as the many examples of the mutual tolerance, caring and support which epitomised their professional and their personal relationships. I also loved the lighter moments of humour, the teasing banter between them, something which provided some relief from the intensity of the darker aspects of the story. In fact, throughout the story I felt totally convinced by the psychological integrity which underpinned both the character development and the credibility of the storyline. Not one character felt superfluous: no matter how minor, each had a significant part to play in the developing story.
Although there’s an ever-present urgency in this impossible-to-put-down story, I wouldn’t describe it as fast-paced because, right from the start, I felt that I was experiencing it in the same real-time world of the characters, not only sitting with Dana and Nathan in the rather claustrophobic atmosphere of the interview room, but also feeling part of all the background investigations being carried out and in all the information-gathering which would enable the team to eventually discover the truth. This is one of the most intense, absorbing and powerful crime stories/psychological thrillers I’ve ever read and I urge you to find why by reading this impressive debut novel for yourself.
A final reflection – although I in no way felt dissatisfied with the ending (in fact I thought it was stunning!), it did hold out the possibility that perhaps we’ll hear more of Dana and the team. So, I do hope that the author is already working on a follow-up as I’d love to get to know them better!
With my thanks to the publisher and NB for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Reviewed by Linda Hepworth
Personal read: *****
Group read: *****
Headline Publishing Group 17th September 2020