Reviewed by Harriet
He was in the room. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep, but she’d been dreaming. In the dark someone padded between the furniture, and loose change fell softly. The mattress gave beside her. In the dream there’d been a wide sandy beach, and a man looking down at her, standing very close, the sun high behind him so she couldn’t see his face. The man reached into her breast pocket – she felt his fingers nosing, and he drew something out that glittered. Then the beach had gone, and the space beyond the bed was all muffled blackness. No light came in from the landing – she might have been underground. Cold crept under the duvet. She felt the furred brush of his leg against hers.
So begins Christobel Kent’s rivetingly menacing novel. This is exactly the kind of book I like. I’ve seen it somewhere described as ‘domestic noir’ – a family-based psychological novel — and that seems as good a term as any. The fundamental question it raises is this: how well do we really know even those people who are closest to us?
The setting of the novel adds much to the atmosphere. It takes place in a part of eastern England known as the Fens, or Fenland, a largely agricultural area, flat and waterlogged, and frankly not the sort of place I’d choose to live. Fran Hall, the novel’s protagonist, almost certainly wouldn’t have chosen it either, but her husband Nathan, whose birthplace it is, has insisted that they leave their London flat (and Fran’s job) and move to a rather dilapidated and gloomy farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Nathan has a business connected in some way with the construction industry (Fran is a bit vague about what this really entails), which takes him out all day, and several evenings a week he disappears to the pub, leaving Fran at home with 5-year-old Emme and baby Ben. So Fran is used to going to bed and to sleep before Nathan comes home. But on the night when the novel begins, she’s woken by Ben’s crying and realises that it is the very early hours of the morning and Nathan is not beside her. Frantic with worry, she stumbles out into the darkness and discovers Nathan’s body in a nearby field. He has been brutally murdered.
So now begins the police investigation, which is conducted by a particularly unpleasant Detective Inspector who makes no secret of the fact that he suspects Fran of her husband’s murder. Although initially his reasons for doing so are not clear, it gradually becomes apparent that Nathan is not the only one in the family to have secrets. Some of Fran’s go back into the past, but there’s one thing she feels she cannot tell the unsympathetic police – the man who crept into her bed and made love to her in the night cannot have been Nathan, who, forensics reveal, had already been dead for several hours before this event occurred. Shame and embarrassment cause her to withold this information, which could of course be vital to the investigation.
Fortunately Fran, who is getting increasingly desperate, has the support of an understanding Family Liaison Officer (who has domestic troubles of her own) and a woman neighbour who is able to look after Fran’s kids while she undertakes some investigations of her own. Of course by now you won’t be surprised to learn that more or less everything that Fran thought she knew about her husband proves to be a lie. As the layers of falsehood are gradually stripped away, Fran comes to realise that Nathan has been using her for some purpose, the nature of which is, however, unclear to her. And, as time goes on, she wonders if the few people she has felt able to trust are really on her side.
I’d never heard of Christobel Kent before this book came my way, but I now know she’s written one other standalone novel, The Crooked House, and before that a series of crime novels set in Italy. I’m certainly looking forward to exploring more of her work – this one really stood out for its handling of character and its superb creation of suspense. The writing is elegantly readable, not something you can say all that often about crime novels. The last part of the novel, in which suspicion shifts rapidly from person to person, kept me guessing right up to the final revelation, which I hadn’t seen coming at all. Excellent stuff.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Christobel Kent, The Loving Husband (Sphere, 2016). 978-0751562385, 416pp., hardback.
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