S.J. Bolton is a strikingly original writer, and this book, while being something of a change up from her previous three, is no different in its originality. The change up involves moving the story to the big city of London – the other books were in remote areas of Britain – and making it pretty much a straight up police procedural. She carries over a character, Dana Tulloch, from Blood Harvest, but this novel is in no way a sequel. What does remain the same is a very interesting, flawed, central female character, in this case one Lacey Flint, a member of the police force who has the bad luck to have a woman die in her arms in the opening scene. Lacey, it develops, has many secrets, and they are only slowly teased out throughout the book.
As in the other books, the main character, Lacey, also has an area of expertise: Jack the Ripper. This expertise comes in more than handy as the first death turns out to be only the beginning in a series of deaths, and the deaths seem to bear a striking resemblance to the Ripper killings. Lacey is drawn onto the task force by DI Dana Tulloch who is heading it up, somewhat to her reluctance. It becomes clear as the story progresses that the killer has in some way honed in on Lacey, but whether she’s an asset to the police task force or they’ve kept her close at hand to keep an eye on her is never entirely clear. Bolton is an expert at keeping the reader guessing.
The original slant in this novel is all about gender. Yes, this is a serial killer book, but Bolton looks at every crime described in the book from a woman’s point of view. It’s pointed up in countless small ways and big ones; as the task force discusses a rape case, for example, with the different reactions of male and female cops; to the effort Lacey herself puts in to the rape case involving a young school girl, a story told matter of factly from the girl’s point of view. Lacey herself is an enigma – for work she puts on glasses she doesn’t need, pulls her hair into a bun, and dresses as plainly as possible. Her physical impression thus affects her working relationships, though this detail is never a polemic, it’s more in the showing-not-telling school of story telling at which Bolton excels. When Lacey is off work she’s a different creature entirely, dressed more provocatively and scouring the streets of Camden in search of casual sex. Her growing attraction to and simultaneous repulsion for her fellow detective, Joesbury, only add to the complications in her life, and this book is as far as it can be from a romance.
The murders are pretty gory and terrible, so be forewarned, and the echoes of the Ripper killings are truly horrible. However, they make the story far more creepy and resonant, as well as maintaining Bolton’s leaning toward the gothic. When I interviewed her a few years ago she mentioned Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and the Brontes as influences, citing their “bags of atmosphere and suspense.” And indeed, Bolton’s other skill is illuminating any setting she chooses to write about, the Camden Horse Market in this novel being particularly memorable (there’s even an author’s note about it at the end of the book). The narrative drive and complex plotting, I think, are all her own. Comparisons can be made to Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters, and Mo Hayder, but this is one of the more original writers I’ve ever encountered. No matter which of her four books you choose to read, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.