Strangers to the south of England may be unaware of the rolling uplands known as the Malborough Downs. Also known as the North Wessex Downs, the area is full of important Neolithic and Bronze Age sites as well as being the setting for much of Hardy’s Jude The Obscure and the 1972 best-seller by Richard Adams, Watership Down. Now, the area provides a brooding and often menacing backdrop to The Hidden Bones, the first of a new mystery series written by Nicola Ford.
Clare Hills is an archaeologist who is struggling to hold her life together after the death of her husband. Her grief at his passing is tempered by the fact that he has left her virtually penniless. When she is invited by her former tutor, Dr David Barbrook, to help explore and archive the papers of Gerald Hart, she welcomes the chance to use her expertise. Hart was a gentleman archaeologist whose Palladian villa, Hungerbourne Manor, was the centre of his life’s work – investigating the Hungerbourne Barrows. The Bronze Age burial sites were Hart’s obsession, but whatever secrets they held, he seems to have taken them with him to his grave.
As Hills and Barbrook are soon to discover, Gerald Hart’s work was not without controversy, much of which centred around the discovery of a beautiful ornament known as a Sun Disc, evocatively described thus:
“In his hand he cradled the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. Not much bigger than a ten pence piece, an orange-red disc lay at its centre. The ruddy amber disc was encased within a circle of gold decorated with four delicately incised concentric grooves that ran right around its rim.”
Archaeologists must expect, from time to time, to uncover human remains, but these are usually nothing sinister except, perhaps, in the masterly ghost stories of M R James. The problem is, however, that one of the discoveries made by Hills and Barbrook do not date back four millennia: far from it – they are much more recent, and have a chilling significance.
Gerald Hart, like many obsessives, collected friends and enemies with equal ease, and most of these are still in the land of the living. As Hills and Barbrook delve deeper into the affairs of the late archaeologist, they themselves become potential targets for a killer who was involved in the original excavations at Hungerbourne.
I have many guilty pleasures, and one of them is being a sucker for a crime novel where the landscape plays a vital part in the plot. My two particular favourite writers in this regard are Phil Rickman and Jim Kelly, but with this excellent debut novel, Nicola Ford (right) has elbowed herself into their company.
The Hidden Bones has all the best elements of a cosy crime novel mystery, but is spiced with both fascinating historical detail and a definite touch of the macabre. It is published by Allison & Busby and will be available on 21st June.
Nicola Ford is an archaeologist who works for the National Trust at Stonehenge, and under her working name of Dr Nick Snashall she regularly appears on national television and radio.