Hazel McHaffie

thriller

Lock Me In

Well, Lock Me In, rather grabs you by the throat, doesn’t it, when we’re on the cusp of starting to emerge from lockdown yet again! Lock me IN?  No! No! No! Please NO!

Turn to the back cover of the said book and you see more phrases reminiscent of the mental consequences of being stuck in our homes: ‘locked in her bedroom’,  ‘sleep disorder’, ‘violent’, ‘unpredictable behaviours’, ‘anger ‘. Makes you shudder.

But in fact, this story is nothing to do with Covid-19. Indeed, it was published in 2019, before we’d even heard of the coronavirus. It’s another thriller with a medical condition at its core. Now you’re talking …

Oh, and I love the dedication: To Tom, who never once suggested I give up this nonsense and get a real job.

The author is Kate Simants, formerly an investigative broadcast journalist for both Channel 4 and the BBC, who gained first-hand knowledge of the realities of police procedure and culture in the course of her work. She also specialised in covert filming and undercover work, and contributed to various exposés, from fraudulent witchdoctors to abuse in children’s homes, so she comes to thriller-writing with exceptional credentials.

The medical condition in question is not one I knew much about. Nineteen-year-old Ellie Power has been given the label of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her rare sleep disorder means that every night she must be locked into her bedroom in her mother’s flat for fear of what she might do if she’s free. Even so, in the mornings after one of her ‘fugues’, she finds disturbing evidence that she’s been up and about – multiple injuries on her own or her mother’s body, soil up her arms and on her clothes, damage done to the locks on the doors. But she has absolutely no recollection of what has happened to her. Knives, matches, bleach, everything potentially harmful, have to be hidden safe beyond her reach.

The Powers’ whole lives are lived on a tentative basis. Ellie’s mum, Christine, has abandoned a career of relative fame as an internationally renowned war reporter, never putting down roots lest they be recognised. They live in rented accommodation, pay in cash so they can leave at a moment’s notice. Boyfriends have to be dismissed if they start asking too many questions. Everything revolves around covering Ellie’s tracks, keeping her safe.

Safe from Siggy; her alter ego, her nemesis.

Now Matt, Ellie’s boyfriend, is missing. And Ellie bears the marks of fingers compressing her neck. Dare we even ask … what has happened?

The plotting of this thriller is intriguing. At the centre is this young couple, Ellie and Matt. On the face of it, Ellie has a checkered past, living with the devastation wrought by Siggy; the death of her best friend Jodie; her brushes with the law and mental health services; her responsibility for the damage caused to the reputation of DS Ben Kwon Mae. By contrast, Matt seems colourless: 26, a hospital photography lab technician, reliable, with no history of going missing or dabbling in unsavoury habits. But the layers of the story unravel to reveal a tangled web of abuse, deceit, suspect identities, hidden pasts, betrayal. Family, healthcare personnel, police, employers … so many lives intricately interwoven; the fall of one domino creating a cascade of repercussions for so many others.

The tension builds cleverly as each lie is exposed, each cover blown. One neat tactic Simants adopts is to include transcripts of interviews with a psychologist trying to get a young Ellie to deal with her terrible nightmares, thereby revealing a truth even she doesn’t know exists.

At what point does fantasy become memory? Where does responsibility begin and end? Could Ellie/Siggy really be held accountable for the death of two people she loved? And exactly who is she?

The turning point comes unexpectedly with a new pathos, insights into the horrors of war, brutality, and crushing grief. The whole book is well-written, and I love throw away expressions like a wave on the river turning a narrowboat into an accidental submarine, or a policeman directing an angle-grinder stare at a suspect. But the language – the very feel of the novel – in the later section, changes to convey something much more reflective and evocative.
War does not  leave when the soldiers leave. The people, the children, are the echo chamber. All the death here has left the air slack. It climbs out of the earth and the buildings to greet you. More than just quiet; it is something stretched and released, like a womb just vacated.

The denouement when it finally emerges bears no resemblance to the picture I’d been building in my mind. It’s altogether more poignant, more unbearably sad.  I needed to take time to revisit the character of Ellie, and re-live her experiences through the prism of fuller knowledge.

Fascinating as much for its structure as its story.

 

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Two Little Girls

Psyching myself back into my current novel after all the excitement and busyness of the festive season, required a game plan. First, read a new-release novel from my shelves about a woman struggling to love her baby: Two Little Girls by Kate Medina. Even the cover sent a chill down my spine: a pair of tiny red sandals full of sand, lapped by the edge of the waves; the text ‘Two little girls walked to their deaths and nobody noticed …’ interspersed with the bald title. Says it all. And indeed the story includes these macabre murders, so it felt oddly serendipitous that, on the very day I read it, the BBC showed a documentary about the murders of the so-called ‘babes in the wood’, 32 years ago. Listening to the parents decades later brought home the indescribable horror these families live with daily.

And because of this reality, I felt uncomfortable seeing the novel dedicated to the author’s own two young daughters. Hmmmm.

Kate Medina has had a lifelong interest in psychology but she uses it effectively. Her characters ring true; policemen hypothesise, psychologists analyse and theorise, ordinary people don’t turn their brains inside out! The setting too, feels authentic – I know people who have a holiday home in Wittering!

We’re aware from the first few chapters that …
Laura aka Carolynn Reynolds, is the mother of a little girl found dead in the sand dunes at West Wittering beach two years ago
… she suffers from major psychiatric problems
… she’s in hiding
… her life is a tissue of lies
… her husband Roger is in on some at least of the lies
… she was tried for the murder of Zoe, the daughter she found so difficult to love
… she was acquitted because of lack of evidence
… Detective Inspector  Bobby ‘Marilyn’ Simmonds  who worked on the case at the time,  still believes she was guilty
… Dr Jessie Flynn, the psychologist Carolynn has been seeing, struggles herself with layer upon layer of psychological damage
… and Carolynn was running alone on the beach when a second little girl was murdered.

Phew! Is she guilty? Is she not? Is anyone else in danger?

Which brings me nicely to how far would my own protagonist go when her baby drives her beyond reason? And I come back to the writing with a renewed sense of what constitutes a thriller. A preparatory day well spent.

 

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