Wednesday, 15 May 2013

'Tarnished' by Julia Crouch

Julia Crouch has overtaken Douglas Kennedy as my favourite author of domestic thrillers..!

'Tarnished' is her third novel and, I think, her best so far.

The first two, 'Cuckoo' and 'Every Vow You Break' were wholly-absorbing and inexorably disastrous tales to do with familar figures from the distant past coming back to haunt our heroes in the present. Both books were shocking and brilliant - and just a little dark humoured. What I loved was the creeping sense of horror in both, as we realise - just ahead of the protagonist - what's really going on. I also loved the sheer outrageousness of some of the things that went on... and the lengths that the undeclared villains kept going to in their quest for revenge. There's a delicious black humour at work here.

'Tarnished' is even better, I think, because it's so claustrophobic. A lot of the action happens inside Nan's cluttered mausoleum of a bungalow, where Peg was brought up after her mother died and her father vanished. It's a foisty, unaired place heaped with carrier bags of woollies needing mending and photos of half-forgotten people. Auntie Jean is bedbound in an annexe, cramming unholy amounts of food in her gob and shouting through the baby alarm to be cossetted.

Now grown up, Peg revisits the bungalow - having established a life for herself in London, where she's in love with a slightly edgy and Real Crime-obsessed girlfriend, Loz. But back home she's still the same, damaged orphan girl, passive in the face of her overwhelming female relatives.

But her memories - long repressed - are starting to surface in flashback first person chapters, as Peg sets about investigating her father and her mother and the disappearances of several women back in the Nineties. She visits a seedy night club, a flashy villa in Spain and a scary lock-up back in London. All through this we're feeling a mounting sense of dread about almost all of the people involved.

I think I guessed what was coming at the end about two thirds of the way through. But that didn't spoil it a bit. It just left me wondering how horrible it was all going to get.

And it gets pretty scary.

Everyone is drawn so well. I love the tantalising game of are-they-okay or are-they-actually-evil that Crouch has us play with her characters... and the answers are never clear cut. Except, in some cases they are. In 'Tarnished' she's created some of the most unambiguously wicked characters I've found in a novel for a long time.

But I won't spoil it by telling you which one(s) they are...!

Oddly, in amongst all the pacey stuff and the scary stuff, all the twists and revelations, my favourite bit turned out to be the chapter with the visitor from school - and how Nan tries to help her with a disfiguring mole.

But, it was all wonderful to read. The kind of book that fills you with delicious horror and most of it's relief because - although it feels like it during the time you're reading - this isn't actually your life.

(The picture above was from Friday early evening at one of my favourite cafes in the world - the Blue Moon on Broughton St in Edinburgh, where I was reading the last chapters of 'Tarnished'. The cafe where I spent so much time in the 90s - and where I wrote quite a few scenes from books. And lived them too!)

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