After reading myriad glowing reviews of this novel throughout the year, I had high expectations. I was not disappointed. An outstanding debut thriller that incorporates a cold case murder and folk legends in the rather unique format of a modern day podcast.
Back in 1996, Tom Jeffries, just fifteen years of age, went missing on Northumberland’s atmospheric Scarclaw Fell. He was one of five teenagers who were attending an outdoor adventure trip to Scarclaw Fell Woodlands Centre.
Scott King runs a series of podcasts which investigate cold cases. His latest investigation examines the Scarclaw Fell tragedy of 1996. He intends to interview six different people who were a part of the tragedy back then, hoping to glean some insight into the tragedy by seeing the events that took place via six different perspectives – or Six Stories.
Harry Saint Clement-Ramsay, the son of the man who owns the land that encompasses Scarclaw Fell, and who found Tom Jeffries body a year after he went missing. After an inquest, the death of Tom Jeffries was deemed misadventure, with no signs of foul-play.
Derek Bickers, outdoorsman and leader of the Rangers group of children and adolescents who frequently visited the Scarclaw Fell Woodlands Centre. He was the adult in charge of the youth the weekend that Tom Jeffries went missing. For a while he was a suspect in the case.
“Even in daylight, there’s darkness on Scarclaw”.
The teenagers at Scarclaw that night had all been drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis. In addition to this rebellious conduct, they told each other sinister stories of mythic entities that were said to inhabit Scarclaw Fell. Stories that perhaps were instigated by the locals to frighten their children so they would stay away from the Fell and the many dangerous, disused mines it contained. The most popular story they told to frighten each other was the story of Nanna Wrack. A marsh hag that was thought to feed off bodies in the marshy land of Scarclaw Fell. Then there is the story of the Belkeld Beast. (Belkeld being the name of the village closest to Scarclaw).
“Mother, is that father’s form at the door?
It’s taller and longer than ever before,
His face is all white, coat black like a loon,
His teeth glow like blades in the light of the moon.”
They all maintained that they were asleep when Tom Jeffries disappeared.
“Kids are like packs of wild animals. And the pack has certain characters. There are leaders, voices of reason, the brains, the brawn, the wild card, the outsider…the victim.”
Charlie Armstrong, the alpha of the small band of teenage friends. Also fifteen years of age, but a rebel who smoked and drank, dressed differently, and, like most teenagers his age, was full of confusion and anger.
Eva Bickers, (the fifteen year-old daughter of Derek Bickers) was sort of second-in-command to Charlie, who was a life-long friend of hers.
Anyu Kekkonen, the strategist, the brains. A quiet enigma. Brian Mings is devoted to her. Eva is her best-friend.
“Like water-torture, or death by a thousand cuts. ‘Professional bullies crush your soul a sliver at a time.”
Brian Mings, a follower, a victim of bullying, a boy desperate for approval and acceptance by his peers. His parents had separated due to his father’s alcoholism and PTSD. Brian was an only child, lonely at home and shunned by his peers.
Tom Jeffries, the murder victim, a rough and tumble youth who joined the Rangers later than the others. He had a reputation for delinquency, and was seen as controlling and manipulative. When Tom joined the group, he quickly became Charlie’s ‘right-hand man’. The two boys ‘wound each other up‘.
And then there is Haris Novak. What we would now term a ‘vulnerable adult’, Haris was autistic, a reclusive loner and nature enthusiast. He showed the teens his ‘secret place’, an old disused mine entrance, where he liked to go to watch the bats. He was deemed the prime suspect in the case of the death of Tom Jeffries – though many thought he was just an easy scapegoat. Haris was manipulated and preyed upon by the teenagers.
As you read, you learn the dynamic of the group. What they thought of each other, who was sleeping with who. How the power shifted over time… My only quibble with the novel is that I felt no real sympathy for Tom, the murder victim.
As the story is told from six different viewpoints, I was reminded how memory is selective. How different people’s perceptions can be of the same event. This novel cleverly used this premise, and with a delicious twist at the end, the reader comes to understand what did happen that tragic night in 1996. This is a dark and creepy murder mystery. Highly recommended!
Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor and leads Cuckoo Young Writers creative writing workshops for young people in association with New Writing North. Matt started his writing career in horror and his short horror fiction has been published in Ethereal Tales magazine, Midnight Movie Creature Feature anthology, 22 More Quick Shivers anthology and many more. His debut novella The Black Land, a horror set on the Northumberland coast, was published in 2013 and a new novella set in the forests of Sweden will be available shortly. Matt was a winner of the Pitch Perfect competition at Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Festival in 2015. He is currently working on his second crime novel Ashes, which involves black metal and Icelandic sorcery.