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.
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.