Dead Scared by S J Bolton

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Dead Scared by S J Bolton

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Lost and lonely people killing themselves is nothing new, but when the police think it's not that simple a young female DC is sent in to find out more. Dark, gripping and just a little thought-provoking.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 459 Date: January 2013
Publisher: Corgi
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780552159838

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A few minutes before midnight on 22nd January, DC Lacey Flint is standing on top of the tallest tower in Cambridge, contemplating flying. It's a beautiful sight out there. Just one step.

Mark Joesbury is entering the chapel and pounding up the stairs… not knowing what he'll do, or what he'll find, when he gets to the top.

We'll have to wait to the end of the book to find out.

Cut back eleven days. Flint meets Joesbury a DI with 'the met' in a London bar and finds herself drawn into another undercover operation. Suicide is not unusual in young people. It's especially not unusual in students in the high-pressure environment of the top universities. What is unusual is the number of cases, the fact that all are female and beautiful, and the shocking selection method.

Typically young female suicides resort to 'comfortable' 'easy' ways out: usually involving pills and alcohol, occasionally warm baths and sharp knives. They don’t often set fire to themselves in Hall or arrange to decapitate themselves at the wheel of their car.

The police know that something else is going on here… but they have no idea what.

Lacey Flint is offered the chance to go in: just to listen and observe. She's to pose as a needy student, starting part way through the year and just see what's happening. Lacey, a young policewoman recovering from a difficult case, with still-covered if fading scars on her wrist to prove it, might not be the best choice for the job.

But crimes against women are why she joined the police. She's not likely to say no. She's especially not likely to say no to DI Mark Joesbury.

Laura Farrow (Flint's cover persona) will be working with Dr Evi Oliver, psychologist and student counsellor. Partially-crippled by a ski-ing accident, Evi is finding her medication no longer holds her pain at bay and is becoming increasingly panicked by a feeling of being watched. Strange things are happening at her home… things which appear to have sensible explanations, but not to Evi. Evi is scared.

The final time slip takes us back to Wales, twenty-three years earlier, with a teenage boy irritated by his sister's mis-repeating of Humpty Dumpty, not realising for a second that when he opens the door to his father's study… Humpty Dumpty will take on a whole new meaning.

Dead Scared is Bolton's second outing of her young DC Flint who made her first appearance in Now You See Me but you don't need to have read the earlier book to enjoy this one. Enough hints are dropped about that earlier adventure to create an understanding of the impact it has had (and maybe to make you want to back-track) and that's all you need. Like all the best writers Bolton drops those hints into the current tale, almost in passing. There's no you need to know this about it, just casual references in conversation, stray connections in Flint's mind.

The mind is what this book is all about. What goes on in there, and why, and whether it can be manipulated.

Although specifically told not to investigate, Flint can't help herself. The latest victim, Bryony Carter is still (sort of) alive, and having seen her, the copper in Flint has to start asking questions and following up on the answers. Maybe her inability to follow an order not to do so was partly why she was chosen.

Death in academia is almost a sub-genre these days, but this isn't a Morseian police investigation. What we have here is a dark psychological thriller, told in short sharp chapters, which alternate between Flint telling her own story and third person views of what Evi, Joesbury and other characters are up to along the way.

The other characters are the appropriate mixture of professionals and students and strangers (including some professionals and students with a touch of the strange about them).

The closed world of the old university towns is ripe for this kind of story-telling though. It has all the elegance and snobbery of the original gothic stories. All the dark woods, and decaying buildings. It creates the potential for people to live very close, sharing kitchens and bathrooms and timetables, but without really knowing each other. There is something sinisterly monastic about the older colleges. Bolton grasps this potential and wields it deftly, even while she has her protagonists texting from the bleak outskirts of industrial estates.

Regular crime readers will make the obvious connections, and ponder the unobvious ones, but the plot rattles along fast enough for you not to pause long enough to quite separate the red herrings from the clear scent.

It's a nasty story, but the horror lurks where Hitchcock always said it should, in our own minds. True viciousness doesn't need a huge amount of blood, guts and gore… except maybe when that happens to be the personal phobia of the individual in question, echoes of Room 101 whisper around the edges.

I read it quickly and cared about the outcome – sure hallmarks of a well-crafted crime story. I look forward to more from this relatively newcomer to the crime hall of fame – three awards in your first four novels, speaks of great things to come.

For more psychological thrills you could do worse than The Engagement by Chloe Hooper or He Who Fears the Wolf by Karin Fossum - or for less esoteric Cambridge crime Cambridge Blue by Alison Bruce comes recommended.

Of course if you're about to head off to Cambridge and are wondering if it's all death and destruction then The Cambridge Curry Club by Saumya Balsari might raise a smile.

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