CJ Tudor gets the ball rolling by inventing a rather sinister legend and an equally disturbing little community in Sussex. Enter, stage left, a priest called Jack (short for Jacqueline) Brooks and her teenage daughter Flo. Jack’s previous ministry was in a run-down but vibrant parish in Nottingham, but after she became involved in one of those tragic social services failures – think Victoria Climbie, Baby P, Lauren Wright – her oleaginous Bishop, more concerned about PR than prayer, moves her down to Sussex.
We also learn fairly early on that Jack has another skeleton in her closet, but more of that – or, more accurately, him – later. Jack’s first encounter with Chapel Croft residents is the appearance of a barefooted bloodstained child wandering towards her outside the little chapel which gives the village its name. This startling apparition, however, is not from hell, but from a nearby farm where the girl came rather too close to a pig being butchered in the farm’s abattoir.
Jack’s sense of unease about the community increases as the pages turn. In no particular order, we have a former vicar who committed suicide, two teenage girls who disappeared from the village a few years earlier, a cadaverous and saturnine churchwarden. daughter Flo’s involvement with a strange young man called Wrigley who once tried to burn down his school and who suffers from a nervous condition which makes him twitch uncontrollably. Oh yes – there is also something rather nasty buried beneath the floor of the chapel.
As Jack tries desperately to do her job as a minister, she becomes tangled up in a sticky web which involves previous incumbents and how (and why) they died. The more she struggles, the closer the rather unpleasant spider that created the web comes; what we don’t know, however, is the name of the spider.
One of CJ Tudor’s many talents is to lead her readers up the garden path in terms of what we think is happening. I certainly thought I knew what was what, but rather like Prospero, Tudor has the gift of sorcery, and uses it to telling effect, turning Chapel Croft into an enchanted island which is certainly “full of noises”, not all of them being pleasant. Like all good writers, she saves the biggest surprise until the final pages.
One of my early reactions while reading this was to think that we have already had a female vicar and her teenage daughter interacting with things supernatural in Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, but by the time you have reached the last page of The Burning Girls, you will be aware that we are talking about two very different beasts. This novel is suitably creepy, will appeal to crime fiction fans and horror devotees alike, and in Jack Brooks, CJ Tudor (right) presents us with a plausible and very human central character. One of the best things about the book is that the legend of the stick figures and the dark history of Chapel Croft makes one want to put it on the list of places to visit once the wretched virus recedes. Sadly, however, Chapel Croft, its haunted little church and disturbing villagers are, to return to Prospero:
“..all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.”
The Burning Girls is published by Michael Joseph and is out now.