The Suspense is Killing Me

Intrepid Murder Room author and reporter Deb Valentine ventures into the spooky world of suspense, from the domestic chillers of Lesley Glaiester to the supernatural overtones of Andrew Pyper.

On my calendar October marks the start of the ‘spooky season’, where nights draw in early and the imagination takes an eerie turn. The perfect time, then, to look at crime that has the jump-in-the-darkquality of creepily skewed domesticity, or the downright supernatural.

Appropriately, Lesley Glaister’s Trick or Treat begins on Halloween with children doing what children do on the night. Bringing together the neighbours – an elderly couple, an old lady and, sandwiched in between, a young ‘alternative’family – Glaister creates a sense of danger that has you on tenterhooks for the outcome for one child in particular. Even scarier is the portrayal of progressively demoralising old age that tugs at the heartstrings as past sins and rivalries catch up with the eccentric protagonists – horrifically. Keep tissues handy.

A different kind of horror awaits in Harriet Lane’s North London-set dramas. Alys, Always is Rebecca turned on its head. The ubiquitous dead wife is wonderful, the ‘plain Jane’shrewd and calculating, attempting chillingly manoeuvred domestic bliss. And in Her, Lane’s talent for casting shades of indefinable menace really comes to the fore when a chance meeting allows a decades-old grudge to blossom into revenge –not spectacularly but quietly, plausibly, all the way to its heart-stopping conclusion.

In The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield, storyteller par excellence, plays with time, perspective and Brontë’s Jane Eyre in a classically gothic tale. Incest, murder, neglect, subversion roll on in a degenerating country house that mirrors the internal chaos of those within. Who has done what to whom? And who, exactly, is who? These are the secrets a ghostwriter mines as a famous author dictates her memoirs, determined to tell the past her way, forcing the ghostwriter to confront her own unique connection to the story. A gorgeous tale of death and (possibly) redemption.

Helen McCloy takes a more intellectual but no less gothic turn in Mr Splitfoot, pitting forensic psychologist Dr Basil Willing (her series detective) and his wife Gisela against a locked-room conundrum. An old farmhouse with a nasty legend, children summoning the devil for a prank, adults testing the limits of good sense by sleeping in the ‘cursed’room on a bet, it’s all dead-of-the-night fun –well, for us if not for them, as clogs pop, and Gisela and Basil must apply the rational to an apparently irrational series of spine-tingling events.

Another duo to apply the rational to the arcane is Dr Fell and Superintendent Hadley in The Hollow Man. John Dickson Carr sets up a fiendishly clever conglomerate of horrors –the plague, vampires, ghosts, illusionists, Transylvanian superstition, invisible assassins –when a professor is found dying in his study. Meanwhile, another man is shot point-blank. In both cases the telltale snow is trackless, the murderer escapes unseen. How? Carr sets up a deliciously droll debate on every locked-room scenario known to fiction, including death by icicle. Mind bending to its twisted end.

In the treacherous tidal estuary of The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, the bones of a baby are uncovered as a house slides seaward. Hurley’s descriptions of nature are exquisite – we see it, feel it, smell it. He also has a talent for cultivating dread. It’s there in the tiniest human interaction, the minutiae of nature’s caprice. It grows every step of the way. Members of a Catholic parish go on pilgrimage; a mother is sure the shrine will cure her eldest son of his disabilities. We just know bad things are going to happen –and they do. Also something wonderful–buthow? At what cost? Thirty years later those bones unleash the younger son’s memories of that religious retreat and give us his version of events. A seriously creepy tour de force, full of imagery both Christian and Pagan, lingering long after you’ve closed the book. Prepare to shiver.

Shiver again with Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, one hell (a full nine circles) of a story. An academic specialising in Milton’s Paradise Lost is a non-believer, seeing the work as allegorical not literal. But when offered a mysterious trip to Venice, he finds he’s being courted by a demon (hint: not romantically). What happens there is pure evil, shaking him to the core and setting him on a quest to find his ‘missing’daughter. Make no mistake, this is a horror novel but constructed with the precision of any police procedural. The clues are there; our academic must follow them if he is to retrieve his child. In the end, he believes. So do we.

And so, reluctantly, must James Oswald’s DI McLean. This series is so good I read all five books, from Natural Causes to Prayer For The Dead, over a long weekend (yes, I have a life but sleep . . . ha!). Of course, his cases are anything but natural. He’s thrown into what is known in Ben Aaronovitch’s quirky, highly addictive PC Grant Rivers of London series as the ‘weird bollocks’. DI McLean is rational, scientific, but his encounters with Edinburgh’s eldritch underworld defy normal explanation or easy resolution. Aside from the grisly thrills, there is so much to love here: how the relationships form, shift, gain deeper significance, the characters becoming a kind of family (with the requisite unwelcome relatives); how the threads of old threats are picked up in the new; the very Scottishness of it all. The sixth book, House of Silence, is due out in February. I can hardly wait. What fun it is to see McLean’s reputation grow, see his mind furtively acknowledge what his heart has told him all along.

That sometimes the irrational is the rational.


A Collector of PhotographsDeborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter, who has lived in London for many years after moving there from California. Her crime novels feature former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and his artist girlfriend, Katharine Craig, and chart their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. Unorthodox Methods is the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs, and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. In addition to the Kevin Bryce series, Deborah Valentine has been the editor of a number of niche journals, and is a prolific writer of articles, screenplays and novels with a supernatural theme. Find out more on Deborah’s website and follow her on Twitter.