Sharon Bolton, also known as S.J. Bolton, remains one of the more interesting and original writers working in crime fiction at the moment. Some of her notable earlier standalones such as Sacrifice and Awakening are some of my very favorite gothic mysteries. Bolton’s new series features a long-suffering London police officer Lacey Flint, who has stepped down as a detective after traumas endured on previous cases. Lacey is now serving on the River Police and living in a houseboat on the Thames.
The river and it’s many tributaries and sewer tunnels, sets the tone for this watery, atmospheric book. The story opens with a young woman being forcibly drowned and dumped into the river. The second chapter finds Lacey “wild swimming” in the Thames, where she discovers the girl’s body, wrapped in a curious linen shroud and strapped to a pier.
While Lacey is no longer a detective, she has a detective’s instincts and can’t help giving her input to the officers working the girl’s case, an operation headed up by Dana Tulloch, a recurring series character. The several threads of the story involve girls being smuggled into the UK from abroad. It’s these girls whose bodies are being discovered—and of course the body Lacey discovers is neither the first nor the last.
Two things run through all Bolton’s books, almost without exception: one is an unusual, creepy setting; the other is her creation of weirdly damaged—often physically damaged or even handicapped—female characters. These characters often prove to be incredibly compelling. While Lacey is the main protagonist and wears her damage on the inside rather than the outside, Bolton also provides readers of this novel with wheelchair-bound Thessa. I couldn’t get enough of her.
The taut suspense of the book is balanced by Lacey’s visits to Thessa, an herbalist who lives in a secluded house on the river with her brother. Thessa’s advice to Lacey is so sound and her herbal remedies so appealing, I found myself wanting to take notes.
As Bolton draws all the threads of her story together, the suspense does not let up. Like many beautifully crafted things, this novel is at once complex and very simple. Bolton’s tricky storytelling turns the narrative first one way and then another, forcing the reader to examine previous assumptions made while reading. This is a wonderfully intelligent book, with memorable characters and an incredible setting. Like most of Bolton’s other work, it’s also hard to forget.