Deborah Masson is back with another gritty police thriller set in her home town of Aberdeen. This time, DI Eve Hunter (previously seen in Out For Blood and Hold Your Tongue) faces the grimmest challenge presented to police officers all over the world – the death of a child. Lucas Fyfe – dead mother, drug addicted father and unfeeling grandmother – has been in care since he was little. When someone deliberately sets fire to Wellwood, a children’s home, he is the one resident who doesn’t make it out. Why? Because the body of the eleven year-old is discovered in the cellar, and the trapdoor which is the only access is concealed under a heavy carpet.
Literally from page one, Masson gives us another perspective – that of the presumed arsonist. We know it’s a ‘he’, and we know that he was a former resident of Wellwood when it was run by the current warden’s father, William Alderton and the sadistic Sally Fields. I find that the backstory narrative trope can be irritating when an author uses too many viewpoints and too many time frames, but here it is used with subtlety and works very well.
Eve Hunter’s team consists of DS Cooper, DS Mearns and DC Ferguson, and the sparky dynamics between them provide an intriguing counterpoint to the investigation. Scott Ferguson is peripherally involved in a road accident on his way to work, but his obsession with the young man who was the main casualty starts to distract him from the Wellwood case. When a further shocking discovery is made in the cellar where Lucas Fyfe died, Ferguson’s lack of attention becomes even more serious. We eventually learn why Ferguson feels compelled to be at the bedside of the young vagrant who was badly injured in the RTA, and it turns the case on its head.
Hunter and her team soon realise that the surviving children and the three adult staff of Wellwood are not telling all that they know. That much is obvious, but penetrating the veil of secrecy proves more difficult. With both of the original owners dead, and local Children’s Services being very protective of the few remaining historic records of the children who were residents, the case seems to go round in circles, until Ferguson’s with Archie, the young RTA victim, finally pays off.
Deborah Masson is a writer who enjoys providing her readers with the unexpected, and the finale of the novel, in the grim basement of Wellwood, is a prime example. Eve Hunter comes over as tough and uncompromising in pursuit of the bad guys, but her family background has left her with a strong streak of compassion, and when Scott Ferguson finally reveals his own secrets – and his link to the Wellwood basement – she is well-equipped to provide emotional support.
This novel is dark, cleverly plotted, full of well-concealed surprises and a master class in how to write a good police-procedural. From The Ashes is published by Transworld/Penguin and is available now.