Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
It’s thirty two years since the Irish Troubles culminated with hunger strikers dying slowly in prison cells while ordinary people on the outside were shot on the doorstep or disappeared, no questions asked. Now, decades later, the generation that grew up in the eighties is haunted by the ghosts of those distressing times, not least Paula Maguire, forensic psychologist, who came home from school one day to find her mother missing, never found, her going spawning rumours of sleeping with the enemy and murder.
The fraught domestic situation bulks large in this novel: Paula’s father, a policeman, surviving the taint of first suspect (his garden dug up), to take a second wife; Paula’s affection for her, her love for her stepbrother and her approaching marriage to him. Fairly clear cut so far but Paula has a two-year-old daughter. The little girl is accepted by everyone concerned although the question of the child’s father is moot and that includes Paula herself. Some three years ago she had a brief but passionate fling with her boss, a DI and devoted family man, now transferred to England. Small wonder that Paula is contemplating marriage nervously as she is assigned to a Missing Persons case.
A student in her early twenties, daughter of an English peer, has disappeared from her select college, but not without trace. She had been fascinated by an old church and blood has been found there with the photograph of another girl who disappeared in the same place over thirty years ago. Paula and Helen Corry, a formidable DS, focus on two lines of inquiry: the girl’s three friends, two male, one female, and what they presume is a connection between the two widely spaced cases.
An assumption that if a person is not found within a day or two the worst is feared, is destroyed by a running theme throughout the book, purporting to be first person accounts of the victim’s incarceration and abuse amounting to torture. If she is alive who is holding her? And what are her three close friends concealing?
Action escalates: Paula’s wedding date approaches, monopolized by the fitting of a frock like a meringue, and the hen party, another student disappears from the college, and Paula’s old lover arrives from England to take over the investigation. The scene shifts to an exotic sanctuary in the wilds of Donegal. By which time the reader has decided that the missing girl has died by accident at the hands of her friends, that the account of her imprisonment was something from the past, or possibly forged, and one loses interest.
The denouement is not original but there are no new themes, just twists in plots and fresh window dressing. In this novel the miasma of ancient horrors is daunting and pervasive, focussed on one person, Paula, who defines a psychologist as a super neurotic. Good enough.