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.
A fragmented start to a heavy book produces a sigh: this one is going to be labyrinthine.
So - a small girl enters a London cemetery at twilight and knocks the hands off a marble angel. A foul-mouthed driver crashes his new BMW and dies. A house-cleaner accepts a new client. All in rapid-fire sentences, all apparently disparate - and the rest of the 468 pages will explore the connections. However, the people involved are extraordinarily interesting, and have to be in order to steer the reader past the daunting history of so many violent deaths that one loses count. Fortunately more than a dozen have already occurred.
The dominant theme is hit-and-run: boys killed by drivers who fail to stop although most giving themselves up in the end, only to be exonerated after pleas of culpability and remorse, and general agreement that small boys are not traffic-conscious. The careless drivers walk free only to be killed later, crashing into trees. But there are no coincidences and no accidents, as one detective told his daughter before he died.
Terry Darnell was the cop, Stella his daughter, a doughty woman with her own cleaning business. In the basement of her father's house she finds photographs of local streets which had never reached headquarters but that suggest he had been interested in the deaths of small boys and the subsequent suicides of the drivers involved.
Investigation shows that the first case is decades old: 1966, when 10 year-old Mary Thornton saw her brother run down on the same day that the Moors Murderers were sentenced to life. A red herring? There are no coincidences.... Stella, shackled by her father's ghost, is lured into the world of London's streets, abetted by her part-time employee, a tube train driver, an eccentric of spiky intelligence and animal instincts.
Lesley Thomson is adept at slinking into the recesses of minds, notably those of children and holy fools. As with her people action tends to the surreal and, once you get into it, to pure joy. There is the Gothick prep.school with no boys, the madman in the attic and his exquisite model of the Borough of Hammersmith correct to the last horse trough. There is an abandoned apricot poodle called Stanley.
Ghost Girl is as much technical puzzle as mystery. Proper nouns, street names, dates, and dates of deaths necessitate spreadsheets for Stella but may be taken on trust by the reader who, having come to accept the advances and retreats between the last century and now, is deep in the story: guessing, deducing, resolving, lost in a web of deceit and disclosure, of guilt and atonement where dialogue is as fascinating as narrative. A lovely read despite its basic poignancy and for once, although long, a book without padding.
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