I spoke briefly the other day about Erin Kelly's novel The Sick Rose, and called it a psychological thriller in the Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine mould. I wonder, though, whether it might be fairer to say that Erin is not emulating anyone with this dark and suspenseful book but blazing a trail of her own.
"Dead men are heavier than broken hearts" - that line from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep forms the epigraph to a story which features two characters for whom dead men, and the consequences of their deaths, loom large and threaten whatever uneasy peace they have found. Louisa is a gardener, the brains behind ambitious plans to restore a lost Tudor garden in Warwickshire. Paul comes to the site as one of the labouring team. He is running from a dangerous man who is out for revenge, she is hiding from herself, but the past is catching up with both of them.
Tracing Louisa's life as a teenager in an affluent home in central London in the late 1980s and Paul's upbringing on a grim Essex estate much later, each strand of the story connects its protagonist to the winter of 2009/10 when the two first meet at Kelstice Lodge and begin to work together to bring its garden back to life. Erin Kelly has a real feel for time and place, and against these distinct physical and social settings she shows the bleak and needy sides of her very different characters. Where passion drives one to extreme behaviour, for the other it's loyalty and a friendship based on mutual protection, and for both she makes a compelling case for the force that drives them - why they are as they are, why they act as they do.
Every scene twists and shapes the plot a little further, every incident and episode carefully weighted to establish motive, intention and opportunity, to subtly build pressure and pace until the highly dramatic conclusion is reached. It's a book that's very hard to put down, with each precisely timed turn of the narrative screw increasing the tension to a very assured climax. As a reader who is always drawn to books in which gardens feature, I'd have liked more on Kelstice, its history, its planned future and the work of the job, but that's a purely personal response. Gardening apart, the book delves deep into dark hearts and troubled minds and does so in deft and highly readable fashion.