This is atmospheric crime writing at its most thrilling. I lost myself in the story almost immediately, hooked by the plot, the characters, and the ever-present sensation that there was something momentous lurking just below the surface.
mystery | thriller | crime
Two years ago, Ben Fenton went camping for the night with his brother Leo. When Ben woke up, he was drenched in blood, and his brother had gone. Days later, Ben was facing a charge of murder.
Ben’s girlfriend, Ana Seabrook, has always maintained Ben’s innocence. And now, on the hottest day of a sweltering heat wave, a body has been unearthed in Ana’s village. A body that might be Leo’s.
DCI Jansen is sure that Ana has something to hide. Will her secrets stay buried forever? Or can Jansen bring them to light?
Author – Rachael Blok | Published by Head of Zeus on November 2019 | 400 Pages (kindle)
Whilst each book is a standalone story, The Scorched Earth is the second in the Detective Jansen series. Admittedly this was news to me, but it’s not the first time I’ve entered a series mid way through … and I was probably only a couple of chapters in to this book when I made up my mind to go back and read the first novel at a later date. It’s that good.
The Scorched Earth sets its stall out early, with an oppressive and atmospheric start. The country is in the grip of a stifling heatwave, with a stillness and lack of air that muffles every sight, sound and thought with a gauzy, languid haze. It’s inescapable and claustrophobic … and it ripples off the pages, enveloping the reader in an unsettling, off-kilter sensation. For me, this is the perfect start to a book … goosebumps at what’s to come (in spite of the heat!)
My attention was immediately captured by the style of writing; short, snappy sentences which in themselves are simplistic … but their simplicity belies something rather special. It took me a little while to settle in to the rhythm of this distinctive style, but once I did I fell in love with the mood and sensation it created. Really powerful word play; they pack a punch and are laden with enormous sentiment.
The story unfolds in two parallel timelines – the present day, and a dreadful night in Norfolk two years previously – and centres around the inextricable lives of Ana, her partner Ben, and Ben’s younger brother Leo. Ana and Leo were the best of friends throughout their childhood; a closeness that continued throughout and beyond their college years; a closeness that endured the romance blossoming between Ana and Ben.
The story reveals itself slowly, and sinuously; like trying to grasp the fading recollection of an anxiety dream. Ana is living at home with her mother in the beautiful village of Ayot. She’s abandoned the flat in London she shared with Ben … because Ben is in prison, having been charged with the murder of his brother, Leo. Despite Ben’s continued plea of innocence, and an overwhelming burden of forensic evidence, Leo’s body was never found. Then, one morning two years later, the villagers of Ayot awaken to the news of a burial in the Palladian church graveyard … an unauthorised, over-night burial, dug into the sun-baked earth with the clear intent of making a statement.
DCI Maarten Jansen and his team from St Albans police station are sent to investigate, and their nagging suspicions that they’re not being told the whole story prompt them to contact their colleagues in Norfolk. As the detectives retrace the steps of the original murder investigation, the author cleverly transports the reader to a sunny cliff-top two years previously; the night the two brothers had a very public and wholly uncomfortable argument.
Like a scene in a broken mirror, the shards of the story don’t quite match. The author artfully seeds the story with events and memories that had my armchair detective brain working overtime. Seemingly innocent happenings become loaded with menace when viewed in hindsight, and the portentous arrival of an unwelcome face from Ana’s past adds to the sense of claustrophobic noir.
The cast of characters is quite extensive, but each of them serves to peel back a layer of secrecy, exposing the events of Ana, Leo and Ben’s past that culminated with the grim discovery in that quiet village graveyard. Every character is written with care, revealing just enough to make them likeable or suspicious, trustworthy or dangerous, vulnerable or duplicitous. But the impression you get of a character in one chapter can be overturned in the next … not always, but just often enough to keep you on your toes.
With extremely skilful writing the author has created a thriller that draws the reader inescapably in to the heart of the story through its characters, taking full advantage of our desire to get under the skin of their secrets. But the standout aspect of the novel for me really has to be the weather … or the author’s use of the weather to be more precise. It enhances the drama, distorts reasoning, and intensifies the restlessness both of the characters and the reader; it drives the story forwards and subtly hints that something’s about to happen that you need to pay proper attention to. In fact, it’s the weather that builds and builds towards the stormy, thoroughly perfect conclusion of the case, delivering an inspired twist that I just didn’t see coming.
The Scorched Earth is based in a Hertfordshire village called Ayot, with a handful of scenes in the stunning cathedral city of St Albans. I don’t normally get so excited about locations, but in this case I have … because Ayot (St Lawrance) is the village of my childhood. It’s absolutely gorgeous. And the Palladian church that plays such a pivotal role in this book is very real … and very atmospheric. Both the village and the church are well worth a visit, as is the Brocket Arms pub for a spot of lunch (and a spot of ghost hunting!!)
Rachael grew up in Durham and now lives in Hertfordshire. Her crime series is set in the cathedral city of St Albans. Here, Maarten Jansen struggles against his plain-speaking Dutch upbringing when faced with the seemingly polite world of the picturesque city.
Under the Ice is the first novel in the series. The third book – Into the Fire – is due to be published in April 2021.