Review 1555: The Voices Beyond

I have been reading Johan Theorin’s novels for years, ever since I picked up The Darkest Room. The Voices Beyond is one of his atmospheric thrillers set on the Swedish island of Öland in the Baltic Sea. In the case of The Darkest Room, at least, there was also an element of the supernatural. This makes an appropriate book as we’re leading up to Halloween and is also an entry for RIPXV.

The novel begins in 1930, when Gerlof (who appears in all these books) is a young man helping out as a gravedigger. The man being buried is Edvard Kloss, of a family of wealthy farmers, and the rumor is that his two brothers killed him by toppling a wall on him. Also helping the burial that day is a teenager named Aron Fredh, rumored to be a bastard son of Edvard. When the coffin is put in the ground and they begin to cover it, everyone at the graveside hears three distinct raps, apparently coming from the coffin. The men haul the coffin back up and open it, but Edvard is definitely dead. However, his brother Gilbert falls over dead from the shock.

Sixty years later, Gerlof is a retired sea captain staying for the summer in his cottage on the beach in Stevnik. One night when he is sleeping in the boathouse, he is awakened by a terrified boy, Jonas Kloss. Jonas tells him that he was floating on a rubber dinghy when a large ghost ship nearly ran him over. He saved himself by grabbing a dangling rope and was able to get aboard. There he saw dead sailors on the deck and a young man chasing another sailor with an ax. Up in the wheelhouse was an old man. Jonas thinks he has seen the young man before.

Gerlof helps Jonas figure out that the young man sold him movie tickets the year before, so they are able to identify him as Pecka. Although Gerlof asks the boy not to tell anyone this, Jonas confides in his Uncle Kent. Soon Pecka is dead.

Intermittently, we learn the story of Aron Fredh, whose stepfather Sven reportedly took him away to America in 1930, and they were never heard from again. But Sven, a dedicated socialist, actually took him to the Soviet Union, where they lived a brutal life and Aron managed to survive the Great Purge.

Eventually, Gerlof realizes that the old man is Aron Fredh, pursuing some kind of vendetta against the Klosses. But how to find him?

Theorin does something really interesting with these characters that I don’t want to reveal. Let me just say that everything is not what it seems.

Although none of Theorin’s books has been quite as memorable as The Darkest Room, they have all been good, and I think this one is more memorable than the last couple.

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Review 1487: Strangers at the Gate

It seems too good to be true when Paddy Lamb returns from a job interview to report that he’s been offered a partnership at a firm in Simmerton. When his wife, Finnie, raises questions about where she is going to work and how far the commute is, he comes back with an offer of a lease on a cottage belonging to the firm’s owner and the promise of a job for her as a deacon at Simmerton Parish Church.

As soon as they arrive, things begin falling apart. Finnie can see that her help isn’t really needed at the parish church. Then, Finnie and Paddy are invited by Tuft Dudgeon, the wife of Paddy’s new boss, for dinner on the night they move in. They have a pleasant evening, and the two are walking home when Finnie realizes she left her bag. Something has been spooking her all day, so when she returns to the house and can’t raise the Dudgeons, she goes back to the kitchen. There she finds Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon in a pool of blood, apparent suicides.

She is about to call the police when Paddy stops her, because in his past he was involved in minor criminal activity. The couple decides to wait and let someone discover the bodies, thinking that will happen shortly. But when Paddy arrives at work, he finds that someone has sent a fax saying they have left on vacation to Brazil. The only problem is that the fax was sent after Finnie saw the bodies. As Finnie and Paddy try to get someone to discover the bodies, the lies begin to pile up.

My first impression of this situation was that it was a silly one for McPherson, who usually writes good modern-day cozy thrillers. It was hard for me to believe that Finnie would agree to lie. She is a deacon, albeit an unconventional one, and she seems to take this seriously although with a light touch. However, if you can buy into the situation, it’s a fairly wild ride to the conclusion.

I really love McPherson’s thrillers, because they combine a creepy plot with a community of likable characters often featuring life in a small Scottish village. This one follows that pattern while providing loads of atmosphere in this isolated, dark village.

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Review 1460: The Story Keeper

Audrey Hart arrives on the Isle of Skye to take up a position as an assistant to a folklorist in 1857. She has fled her family because of a situation that occurred during her volunteer work and because her father doesn’t believe a girl of her upbringing should work. She has taken a job on Skye because her mother, who died when she was a child, loved it there.

Upon her arrival in Skye, Audrey notices a croft girl who appears to be ill. The local people believe she was taken by fairies. The Buchanans, her employers, aren’t interested in what happens to a girl of her class. The minister thinks even Miss Buchanan’s story-collecting activities encourage superstition.

Audrey is worried, because she hasn’t been able to get the locals to tell her any stories so can’t do her job. But then she begins hearing about other young girls who have disappeared. No one seems to want to listen to her ideas that the disappearances may be related, not even the kind nephew of Miss Buchanan, Alec. While all this is going on, Alec’s father is enclosing his land and evicting tenants.

This is an atmospheric novel that nicely blends the folklore of the area with more sinister themes. Although I almost immediately figured out what was going on, if not the motive, I enjoyed the journey. This is an entertaining historical suspense novel.

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Review 1369: The Craftsman

Thirty years ago, Florence Lovelady’s career took off when she helped capture Larry Glassbrook, a coffin maker who was burying teenagers alive. Something made her continue to visit Larry in prison, though, and now he has died. With her teenage son, Ben, she has returned to the village of Sabden, in Lancashire, for his funeral.

When Florence, or Flossie, as she is known there, goes to visit the Glassbrook house, where she was a lodger years ago, she finds a clay picture of herself. A clay picture is like a voodoo doll, used in dark magic, and was a feature of the earlier murders. This discovery makes Flossie re-evaluate the truths about the earlier murders. Although Larry confessed to the crimes, did he have an accomplice? Did he even commit the murders?

Sabden sits at the bottom of Pendle Hill, a location famous for witches. The novel returns to the past to follow the investigation of the first crimes, during which Flossie encountered a coven of white witches. Then it returns to the present, where Flossie is threatened again.

This is a fast-paced, enthralling book. It wasn’t as creepy as it was probably meant to be, but I enjoyed both police investigations. This is a good, solid thriller with a twist.

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Review 1367: See What I Have Done

See What I Have Done is an interpretation of the famous Borden murders in 1892. It is absolutely seething with undercurrents and is occasionally very creepy. I think most people don’t know that Lizzy Borden was not found guilty of the murders of her stepmother and father. Somehow, this novel maintains suspense by creating uncertainty about that.

The novel concentrates most of its energy on the day before and the day of the murder, but it goes backward and forward in time and changes point of view from one character to another.

Schmidt depicts Lizzy as a childish 30-year-old who has been alternately indulged and oppressed by her father. Fatefully, on the day before the murders, Mr. Borden slaughters Lizzy’s pet pigeons with an ax. Then, instead of telling her what he has done, he leaves her to discover it.

There are other people in the house who have motives for the murders. Lizzy’s uncle, John, has hired a ruffian named Benjamin to make Mr. Borden pay attention to his demand that his nieces be treated better. Benjamin is lurking around and inside the house the day of the murders, which made me wonder whether the warning was to go awry. Also, the day before the murders, Abby Borden, who was killed first, confiscated from the maid, Bridget, all of the money she saved to get her back to Ireland.

The narrative style, from Lizzy’s point of view, is feverish. In all, I found this novel to be really interesting, imaginative in its approach and unsettling in effect.

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Review 1365: The Witch Elm

Best of Ten!
Tana French is really good at evoking an atmosphere of dread, the knowledge that things are not going to turn out well. In The Witch Elm, though, she departs from her usual Dublin Murder Squad series somewhat. Instead of a narration from the point of view of one of the cops, it is written from that of another character and takes quite a while to work up to the murder.

The novel begins with a crime, however. Toby is out for drinks with his friends celebrating not having been fired from his job. He works PR for an art gallery that had been preparing a show of disadvantaged artists put together by a man named Tiernan. Toby found out that the most gifted work was not done by the alleged artist but by Tiernan himself, but it was so good that Toby didn’t tell. Now his boss has found out and cancelled the show but is allowing Toby to minimize the damage.

After Toby arrives home, he is awakened by robbers, who beat him badly. He nearly dies and suffers neurological damage and memory loss. He is enraged, though, when the police detective implies that the attack was personal, so he must know his attacker.

During his recovery, he tries to keep his friends and family from realizing how badly hurt he was, and he is not happy when he is contacted by his cousin, Susanna. It turns out his Uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer, and Susanna would like him to stay with Hugo at his home, Ivy House, where Toby and his cousins, Susanna and Leon, lived every summer when they were kids. He decides to go, taking along his girlfriend, Melissa.

Although at first the time at Ivy House seems idyllic, the three enjoying living together only interrupted by family Sunday lunches, and Toby helping Hugo with his genealogical research, the house has a secret. When Hugo calls a family meeting to discuss the disposition of the house, Susanna’s son Zach finds a skull in a hole in the wych elm at the back of the garden.

Soon, the house is overrun by police, who discover a skeleton in the tree. The family imagines it could have been there a long time—until it is identified as Dominic Ganly, a schoolmate of Toby’s, Susanna’s, and Leon’s, a boy who supposedly committed suicide by drowning the summer after school ended.

Toby cannot imagine how Dominic got inside the tree, but his memories of that time are intermittent. Detective Rafferty, however, thinks he knows something, appears in fact to think that Toby did it. Toby starts to wonder if he did.

This is truly one of French’s darkest novels, about the damage small acts can create, even for innocent people, and about how people can be blinkered by their own interests. I was riveted throughout, wondering where it was all going.

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Review 1363: Into the Water

Jules has been estranged from her sister, Nel, since she was thirteen. That’s why, when Nel called her asking for help, she didn’t even bother listening. Now Nel is dead, having fallen from the top of a cliff into the river in the Drowning Pool, the location of several suicides by women as well as witch drownings centuries before.

When Jules travels to Beckford to take charge of her fifteen-year-old niece, Lena, she finds a lot of rumors going around. Louise Whittaker, whose daughter, Katie, died in the same place as Nel a few months ago, thinks Nel was responsible for her daughter’s death because of her research into the Drowning Pool. Is there a connection between the deaths, and did Nel commit suicide? Nickie Sage, the local psychic, thinks the police should be looking at an earlier death, that of Lauren Slatter, who died at the Drowning Pool when her son Sean was six.

I have to say that Hawkins is good at throwing in plot twists and keeping your attention. Although this novel is probably classified as a thriller, it is not so much suspenseful as it is complex. It keeps you guessing.

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Review 1359: Go to My Grave

Cover for Go to My GraveDonna Weaver and her mother have invested everything in The Breakers, a large house on the Galloway coast that they have made available as either a self-catered or fully catered vacation rental. Donna is excitedly awaiting their first guests, an anniversary party of cousins and their spouses, while her mother attends a hospitality convention.

When the guests arrive, however, it becomes clear that they have all been there before. Twenty-five years ago, they attended a 16th birthday party for Sasha, the man whose wife, Kim, has planned this trip.

The reactions of the guests when they recognize the house make it clear that they do not relish memories of this party. Then, shortly after they arrive, things begin appearing in the house that hearken back to that occasion. What is happening in the house? Is one of the guests trying to gaslight the others?

Occasionally, we see flashbacks to 1991, when a 14-year-old local girl named Carmen is invited to the party. When she arrives, she brings along her 12-year-old sister.

This novel is truly riveting, although the answer to what is happening seems a little too contrived. Although McPherson is known for her “cozy” thrillers, this one is probably more accurately described as a modern gothic thriller. The ending to it is a bizarre mixture of cozy and chilling. I didn’t know quite what to think of it, but the best term I can come up with is “morally challenged.” We are presented with an ambiguous conclusion to tone down the ending, but I know very well what I think happened.

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Review 1350: Nine Perfect Strangers

Cover for Nine Perfect StrangersLiane Moriarty must be reading Carl Hiaasen or something. Her works have changed from being domestic thrillers to almost a satire of the genre. In the latest, it was difficult to get too worried about the characters.

Frances is a romance novelist who has just received her first turn-down of her latest book, after a long career. She has also read a nasty review of one of her older books. Finally, she’s been the victim of a romantic scam. To recover, she signs up for a 10-day cleanse at a health spa.

Masha, the charismatic owner of the spa, is trying out some new techniques on her clients. A powerful executive ten years ago, she changed her life after a stroke and took up the health field with all the determination she showed in her previous life. Only now, she wants her clients to have an experience that will permanently change their lives.

For about half this novel, I wondered where the heck it was going. It seemed more comic than anything else. Masha is a marvelous egoist, but it was also hard to take most of the other characters seriously.

When the novel finally started getting somewhere, the whole idea just seemed kind of silly, as does the section where the characters inadvertently take some illegal drugs, well, not exactly inadvertently, and we have to observe their silly thought processes.

A hmmm for this one.

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Review 1345: The Invited

cover for The InvitedHelen and Nate bought a piece of acreage in the New Hampshire countryside and are building their dream house, doing most of the work themselves. What they don’t know, though, is that 90 years ago, Hattie Breckenridge was hanged on their land as a witch. Since then, the property is said to be haunted, especially the nearby bog.

Next door, 14-year-old Olive resents the newcomers. Her mother ran off a few months before, and her father, Dustin, has gone off the rails a bit. He keeps renovated rooms in their house but not finishing them, telling her that her mother will love the house when she returns. Olive has been searching the bog for Hattie’s treasure, rumored to be on the neighbor’s land, something her mother had been doing before she left. Olive thinks Helen and Nate will get in the way of her finding it, so she has been stealing things from their trailer and work site, hoping to drive them away.

link to NetgalleyHelen gets interested in the story of Hattie. After she and Nate incorporate an old beam from the tree on which Hattie was hanged into their house, Helen comes to believe that Hattie is trying to tell her something.

Jennifer McMahon is known for her spooky thrillers set in New Hampshire. This one is fairly good, even though some of her others have been scarier. Although you are led to wonder about Helen’s sanity, I didn’t really doubt that there would be a ghost. More is going on in this book than that, however.

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