The Split by Sharon Bolton

Sharon Bolton is an author whose books I always enjoy, even though I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction these days. I had expected her next book to be the promised sequel to 2018’s The Craftsman, but I was quite happy to find that The Split was a standalone thriller as her earlier standalones such as Sacrifice, Awakening and Little Black Lies have been some of my favourites.

The Split takes us to South Georgia, a remote and inhospitable island in the southern Atlantic Ocean where twenty-eight-year-old Felicity Lloyd is working as a glaciologist for the British Antarctic Survey. It’s fascinating work and Felicity knows she has been given a wonderful opportunity, but she also has another reason for accepting the job – a chance to put as much distance as possible between herself and Freddie, a man from her past of whom she is still afraid. However, it seems that even here, on the other side of the world, she has been unable to escape. Freddie is coming for her, on the last tourist boat of the summer, and has sent her a letter that fills her with fear:

My dearest Felicity,
Finally, I’ve found you. South Georgia? Wow! Know, my darling, that there is nowhere you can go that I won’t follow –

Who exactly is Freddie and what does he want with Felicity? We find out later in the book, but first we have to go back nine months in time to Cambridge where a series of murders has been committed. Felicity’s connection, if any, with these murders is unclear; all we do know is that she is still haunted by some previous traumatic experiences and has been attending sessions with a therapist. Eventually everything will be revealed, but before we get to that point there are plenty of the twists and turns that are to be expected from a Sharon Bolton novel.

When I first started to read this book it was the South Georgia setting that initially appealed to me, but although we are given some beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the cold, harsh environment, I found I wasn’t being drawn into the story as much as I would have liked. The details of whaling operations and Felicity’s research into glaciers didn’t really interest me – and being thrown straight into the middle of the story with no idea of who anybody was or what was happening didn’t help, even though I understood the reasons for that structure. It wasn’t until the action switched to Cambridge and the backgrounds of Felicity and the other characters began to be explored that I was able to settle into the novel and enjoy it.

I can’t really tell you much about the Cambridge section of the book as it would be too difficult to avoid spoilers, but it quickly becomes clear that we can’t rely on everything Felicity tells us because she has been left so badly scarred by her past experiences. Joe, her therapist, who is one of the other main characters whose perspective we see, has suffered his own recent traumas and it’s obvious that there is also more going on in his life than we are aware of at first. The truth about these two characters – and others, including Bamber, a wild and angry young woman who is very protective of Felicity, and Sean, a mysterious figure who stalks the streets of Cambridge at night – unfolds slowly, with everything coming together when we return to South Georgia in the dramatic final third of the novel. However, I found most of the twists quite easy to guess, which is unusual for a Sharon Bolton book and a bit disappointing.

This hasn’t become one of my favourites, then, but I did enjoy it after a slow start. I must find time to read Blood Harvest, the only one of her previous books I still haven’t read!

Thanks to Trapeze for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Two from S.J. Bolton: Now You See Me and Dead Scared

I don’t read a lot of contemporary crime fiction, but one author whose work I’ve been enjoying recently is S.J. Bolton. Last year I read Sacrifice and Awakening and loved both of them. But while those two books had atmospheric settings and a gothic feel (both things which appeal to me in a book) Now You See Me sounded like a more conventional crime novel and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about it. I had been putting off reading it for a while but finally picked it up a couple of weeks ago to read in preparation for reading the sequel, Dead Scared. I’ve decided to combine my thoughts on Now You See Me and Dead Scared into one post as I read them so close together.

Now You See Me introduces us to DC Lacey Flint, a young police detective based in London. After interviewing a witness one evening, Lacey returns to her car to find a dying woman slumped across it. The woman has been stabbed but there’s no sign of her attacker. As more murders take place across the city it starts to appear that they are the work of a serial killer copying the crimes of Jack the Ripper – who happens to be Lacey’s favourite historical figure. Lacey uses her knowledge of the Ripper to guess the killer’s next moves, but it soon becomes obvious that there’s a connection between the murders and Lacey herself, and she’s forced to confront some secrets from her past that she would prefer to keep hidden.

I needn’t have worried that I wouldn’t like this book because I enjoyed it almost as much as the others. What I loved most about Now You See Me was the character of Lacey Flint. As the story’s narrator we’re relying on her to give us all the facts but we quickly discover that there are a lot of things she’s not telling us. I liked Lacey but she’s very flawed and secretive, and the truth about her past is only revealed very slowly as the story progresses. Towards the end of the book, the plot takes a lot of unexpected twists and turns and I loved the fact that S.J. Bolton managed to surprise me after I thought I’d figured everything out!

In Dead Scared we join Lacey again as she goes undercover at Cambridge University to investigate an unusually high number of suicides among the students, most of them attractive young women. Many of these students had reported having problems sleeping and waking from nightmares feeling that someone had been in their room. Posing as a depressed, vulnerable student, Lacey tries to find out what’s going on, but could she be putting her own life at risk?

The only person at Cambridge who knows Lacey’s true identity is Evi Oliver, a psychiatrist with an interesting past of her own. Although most of the book is again narrated by Lacey, there are also some chapters written in the third person from Evi’s perspective. Apparently Evi first appeared in Blood Harvest, the only book by Bolton that I haven’t read yet, and I felt there were a lot of things I didn’t understand about her background – I will have to read Blood Harvest soon!

Now that we’ve had the chance to get to know Lacey better she’s much more open with us and I felt her character had developed a lot since the first book. It would probably be best to read Now You See Me first as it will help you understand Lacey and the way she interacts with the other characters, but this book does stand alone quite well so if you do find yourself reading this one first it shouldn’t spoil things too much.

Both novels also explore Lacey’s relationship with one of her male colleagues, DI Mark Joesbury. It’s obvious almost from their first scene together that they have feelings for each other but neither wants to admit it to the other. There’s a real chemistry between the two of them and this adds another interesting angle to the story.

Like S.J. Bolton’s other novels, Now You See Me and Dead Scared are quick and exciting reads due to the combination of fast-paced plot, short chapters and cliffhanger chapter endings. Bolton is great at creating a dark, menacing atmosphere and building the tension as her characters find themselves becoming increasingly isolated and in danger. These books are not for the faint hearted as the descriptions of the murders and suicides are quite graphic, but if you enjoy reading this type of crime novel I can recommend either or both of these.

The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of Ghosts is an entertaining historical mystery set in and around Cambridge University in the late 18th century. I should read historical mysteries more often because I almost always enjoy them – and this one was no exception.

When London bookseller John Holdsworth’s son is drowned in a tragic accident, his wife insists that their little boy is communicating with them from the spirit world. Holdsworth doesn’t agree and is so disgusted by his wife’s claims that he decides to write a book in which he attempts to prove that ghosts don’t exist. The title of Holdworth’s book is The Anatomy of Ghosts and it soon brings him to the attention of Lady Anne Oldershaw. Her son, Frank, has suffered a nervous breakdown after apparently seeing the ghost of a friend’s wife, Mrs Whichcote, at Jerusalem College, Cambridge. Holdsworth agrees to help Frank – and at the same time he begins to uncover the truth behind what really happened to Mrs Whichcote.

This is the first book I’ve read by Andrew Taylor and I really liked his writing style – it’s detailed yet flows nicely and is easy to read. Some might find the book too slow to begin with, but it does pick up pace. Something that really impressed me about Taylor’s writing was the way he managed to bring his settings so vibrantly to life. Whether he was describing John Holdsworth pushing his barrow of old books through the bustling streets of 18th century London or a couple of students in their caps and gowns strolling through the quiet courtyards and gardens of Cambridge, the sounds, sights and even the smells are incredibly vivid. As a historical novel, though, I think it would have benefited from a few points of reference to anchor the story in the 1700s, as it did at times feel more like the Victorian period to me.

The characters, unfortunately, were not the most likeable of people. In fact, I didn’t like any of them, not even Holdsworth, but it didn’t matter too much – the strength of this book was definitely its plot rather than its characters. And I’ve been left intrigued about what was actually in John Holdsworth’s book, The Anatomy of Ghosts. It would have been a nice addition to the story if we could have read a few excerpts!

Are Andrew Taylor’s other books as good as this one?

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

This is my second book for the Great Transworld Crime Caper and is the first in a series of historical mysteries by the late Ariana Franklin. I knew nothing about this series but Mistress of the Art of Death appealed to me because of the medieval setting (I love books set in medieval England).

This book has an unusual heroine. Her name is Adelia Aguilar and she is a trained doctor, very rare in the year 1171. Adelia is from Salerno, where women are allowed to attend medical school. Her speciality, however, is as a ‘doctor of the dead’ – in other words, she is skilled in performing autopsies and finding out the causes of death. When several young children go missing in Cambridge and the city’s Jews are blamed for the disappearances, Adelia is sent to England to investigate.

As I said, I love reading about medieval history and Franklin touches on many different aspects of the period – from the big things, such as the relationship between the church and the monarchy, to the small, such as the clothes people wore and the food they ate. Adelia, being Italian, is unfamiliar with the politics and customs of 12th century England, which allows the reader to learn along with her – so no need to worry if you don’t have much knowledge of the period. Despite some very modern dialogue and Adelia’s distinctly 21st century thought processes, everything else felt suitably ‘medieval’. Setting and atmosphere are so important in fiction and this is an area in which I thought Franklin excelled. It wouldn’t really be fair for me to comment on the historical accuracy as I haven’t studied the 12th century in any detail but I would say that if you’re looking for a serious piece of historical fiction which is correct in every detail then you need to look elsewhere. Accept this book for what it is though, and it’s an enjoyable read.

The writing in the prologue and opening chapters feels quite light and humorous and I expected the whole book to have the same tone, but when Adelia begins to investigate the mystery things start to feel a lot darker. I should point out that the story does revolve around the abduction and murder of children which isn’t nice to read about; it’s quite graphic in places and a bit disturbing. As for the mystery itself, I didn’t guess who the murderer was, but then I wasn’t really trying to guess. Sometimes I prefer not to attempt to work things out and just enjoy the story – and this was one of those occasions.

I found Adelia a fascinating and engaging character although, as I mentioned earlier, she thought, spoke and behaved more like a woman from the 21st century than the 12th. She’s a strong, independent person who is constantly questioning the role of women in society and has a very modern outlook on medicine, the law and life in general; I liked her but she wasn’t a believable medieval woman. Most of the secondary characters are well-rounded and interesting, particularly Adelia’s housekeeper, Gyltha, and her surly but endearing grandson, Ulf – and I loved the depiction of Henry II.

I enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death and I look forward to being reacquainted with Adelia Aguilar in the other three books in the series. Sadly, Ariana Franklin (Diana Norman) died in January this year aged 77.

I received a copy of this book from Transworld for review.