Reviewed by Victoria
Hands up who remembers Jeremy Bamber, the White House Farm murderer? This was back in 1985, when I was 16 and the case made a notable impact on me because it was local. Bamber was convicted of shooting his entire adoptive family – father, mother, sister and her six-year-old twins – and then framing his sister by placing the gun in her dead hands after the massacre. She had recently been diagnosed with schizophrenia and for a while the police were fooled. But the family gathered evidence for his conviction and now Bamber is serving life imprisonment without parole, despite continuing to protest his innocence. Yes indeed, this is what it was like to grow up in Essex, folks.
Anyway, Christobel Kent, who spent some of her childhood on the Essex coast, has now written a crime novel that reads (to me at least) as if it were inspired by those events. In the prologue, 14-year-old Esme cowers in her bedroom while downstairs her family is massacred one after the other by a maniac with a shotgun. When the police finally arrive, they tell her that the maniac was her father, who finally turned the gun on himself. And then we return to the present, in which Alison hopes to have shed every superficial trace of her former self, even if that which lies within is irrevocably marked. But ordinary, anonymous life brings unexpected dangers. At a book launch party for the publisher where she is working as an accountant, she meets historian Paul Bartlett; older, kind, self-contained, neat. They embark on a relationship that draws Alison in, despite her obsessive need for secrecy. When Paul tells her he is to be best man at a friend’s wedding, and invites her to come for a week’s holiday at Saltleigh where it will be held, she is horrified and torn. For Saltleigh is where the Crooked House and its old horrors are to be found.
Unable to explain why she can’t go, Alison agrees to the trip. It becomes clear that as repulsive and fearful as the past may be, the location holds a hypnotic force for her, returning to her in dreams:
She dreamed she was waking on a boat, climbing up through a hatch and there was the wide expanse of mud silvered in the dawn, the birds stalking the creek on long legs and the power station’s cooling wall breaking the surface of the estuary, as low and dark as a submarine. The little Saxon church stood on the horizon, no bigger than a hut, no more than a sharp black silhouette.
When she arrives in Saltleigh, nothing has changed, as if the shadow of the old trauma haunts the village as fiercely as it still haunts Alison. The Crooked House has been left abandoned and dilapidated, Esme’s best friend Gina (the friend she was supposed to stay with that night, but whom she argued with and left to go home) is as difficult as she ever was, a single mother now, bitter and quick to anger. The boy whom Esme had a crush on is scraping a living as a decorator, ruined by drug abuse. The other locals are sullen and suspicious, wary it seems, of incomers. Alison had thought that no one would recognise her, but this is not at all the case. And when one of the old drunks propping up the bar in the pub is found dead on the marshes shortly after she arrives, it feels as if she is functioning as an unwelcome catalyst, reopening old wounds. The police officer who visits her at the hotel thinks so too. For Sarah Rutherford was there the night her father killed her family, and views Alison/Esme’s return with dismay. Inevitably, Alison finds herself drawn back into the old tragedy, convinced with her fresh adult perception of the massacre that her father was not responsible.
This is an atmospheric novel whose landscape is etched deeply into every page. The cast of characters is a creepy, damaged lot, economically disadvantaged for the most part – except for the family of the bride, Morgan Carter, who are wealthy and completely unsympathetic – and Alison, inside whose head we readers travel in claustrophobic seclusion, is a very plausibly traumatised young woman, struggling to take some control over the memories that have restricted her life. Christobel Kent rarely lets her characters interact with one another properly – the conversations are truncated, stifled somehow, which adds to the sense of frustrated and yet determined investigation. When the revelations finally begin to shake loose, we’re given more than enough reasons for the atrophy that seems to have set over the village, and the horror that is embedded in Alison/Esme’s mind. This is an unsettling psychological thriller, steeped in atmosphere and rich in detail; but it will make you think twice about going home again.
Christobel Kent, The Crooked House (Sphere: London, 2015). 978-0751556995, 416pp., paperback.