Psychological thriiller

THE FALL . . . Between the covers

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The Lancaut peninsula is a real place. It was created back in geological time when the River Wye made a spectacular loop on its way south to merge with the Severn. On the eastern bank is Gloucestershire, and to the west lies Monmouthshire and Wales. Gilly Macmillan has taken taken this rather special and ancient place, and used it as a backdrop for this intriguing thriller. The houses she describes – The Manor and The Barn –  do not exist, but the beautiful landscape certainly does.

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The Barn is an ultra-modern glass and steel construction, something from a modern architect’s wildest dream. Rarely do building designers have a free reign, but when Tom and Nicole Booth won millions on the lottery, they were happy for the brutalist architects to let rip. In contrast, a couple of fields away, is The Manor. A crumbling jumble of genuine styles dating back to Tudor times, it is owned by Olly Palmer and his partner Sasha Dempsey. Olly is an aspiring novelist, perhaps the next literary ‘big thing’, while Sasha runs yoga classes in the The Manor’s former Great Hall. Aspiring (and perspiring) middle-class ladies are happy to pay over the odds to work on their Asana, Bandha and Chakra in such a historic environment.

Nicole returns to The Barn after a day out at a local agricultural show to find Tom dead, floating in their creatively designed swimming pool. The police are called, and Nicole seeks temporary refuge with Olly and Sasha while the emergency services do their thing. The obvious question is, ‘Who killed Tom Booth?”, but the answer to that is saved until very late in the book. Meanwhile we enjoy the frisson of each of the central characters unraveling, one strand at a time.

In addition to all the lies and gaslighting going on between the occupants of The Barn and The Manor, the modern house takes on a demonic life of its own, as Tom and Nicole were persuaded to install a complex AI system where everything – windows, doors, blinds, the sound system and security – all operate by voice command. Except (of course) they don’t, and this allows Gilly Macmillan licence to create all manner of horrors for Nicole, who is very much low-tech.

As with all good psychological thrillers set in domestic situations, no-one – save the two investigating coppers Hal Steen and Jen Walsh – is quite who they appear to be, particularly The Manor’s much put upon housekeeper Kitty, aka – well, that’s for you to discover, but her real identity is central to the story. I have to be honest and say that when I turn a page and see the chapter heading ‘Five Years Earlier’, I am tempted to throw the book down and consign it to the charity shop. I hate split time narratives, but I confess that Gilly Macmillan makes it work here, probably because she uses the device sparingly.

There are enough ironic twists in this story of deception and violent death to earn a benevolent smile from Thomas Hardy as he gazes down from his seat with The Immortals, and I particularly liked the way the pesky voice controlled system in The Barn is used to commit a rather clever murder. The Fall is published by Century and is out on 25th May.

I KNOW WHAT I SAW . . . Between the covers


Imagine having a perfect memory. Being able to replay words, sounds, situations – from years ago. It’s all there, in your head, ready to be recalled. Great for exams when you were younger, but what about when something unpleasant happened to you, and it won’t ever go away? Nicola Walker has Hyperthymesia. She has been the subject of scientific studies and examinations, but her condition is what it is. Now, it’s 2020 and, at the age of 51, she has a humdrum job in London’s British Library. Sher marriage ended half a lifetime ago, and now she lives from day to day with only her cat for company. Until she receives an alarming telephone call.

The call is from a Metropolitan Police detective. Her former husband, Declan, has been arrested on suspicion of murdering his father, years earlier. And his only witness? Nicola and her perfect memory.

We are basically in two time zones. The present day, 2020, and a summer Sunday in June 1985, which is Arty Robbins’s 50th birthday. The event is being celebrated at a pub called The Mary Shelley, and the landlord is Arty’s father, Vincent. Nicola, aged 16, and Declan Robbins, aged 18, son of Arty, are ‘an item’. A list of the other characters is not something I normally compile, but it might be useful in this case.

Craig Walker, Nicola’s father
Susan Walker, Nicola’s mother
Dave Crane, friend of the Walkers. He married Susan after Craig’s death from cancer.
Kat Clarke, Nicola’s contemporary, and best friend. Her father Daniel, Arty Robbins’s brother, walked out on them years earlier.
Chloe Clarke, Kat’s mother
Gary Barclay, Kat’s boyfriend. They later marry.
Anne Robbins, wife of Arty, mother of Declan

ikwis022Arthur Robbins is a pillar of the community. Successful estate agent, all-round diamond geezer and school governor. But then, he just disappears. He was last seen in the small hours on the night of his birthday party. Lost for 35 years – until his remains turn up in the foundations of a building being demolished to make way for a new development.

We have, in one sense, a traditional whodunnit, but it is unconventional insofar as  the usual police work, while still taking place, is secondary to the agonising replays going on inside Nicky’s head. What did she see? Who did she see? Where were they? How do these memories stack up against the ticking clock on that warm summer night 35 years ago? Has she mis-remembered? What if she is shutting out some memories in order to protect someone she loves? There’s no shortage of suspects, as the real Arty Robbins is far from the jovial character he pretends to be.

The killer of Arty Robbins is eventually unmasked, and SK Sharp leads us down many a blind alley as the narrative unfolds, and Nicola finally completes the jigsaw of her memories. It’s clever stuff, and gripping – I read it in two enjoyable sessions – but for me, the strength of the novel is the relationship between Declan and Nicola, both then and now. I don’t remember a more sensitive and perceptive account of teenagers falling in love with each other, but the most moving and effective counterpoint to this is how it all plays out, decades later, with so much water under the bridge, so much hurt, so many mistakes and so much misunderstanding.

This is a fine novel, a thriller, yes, but full of compassion and telling insights into what people do to each other, and how secrets corrode trust. I Know What I Saw was first published in October 2020 by Cornerstone Digital. This paperback edition is from Arrow, and is out now.

SK Sharp (aka Stephen Deas) is on Twitter

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