As with her previous novels, Sophie Hannah starts with an intriguing premise – a confession to a crime that did not take place. Aidan Seed confesses to his girlfriend Ruth Bussey that he killed a woman called Mary Trelease. Yet it turns out that the "victim", an artist, is alive and well, if somewhat reclusive and irritable.
Ruth herself, who is one of the main narrators of the novel, is quite an irritating person at first. She hangs around outside the local police station waiting for Charlie Zailer, demoted after her experiences in previous books, to tell her about Aidan's confession. Why Ruth won't admit to Charlie that she has a stone in her foot that causes her to limp, and why she has an old newspaper cutting of Charlie in her coat, and why she runs off rather than face interrogation, are questions left hanging. But add this behaviour to the fact that Ruth lives in a gatekeeper's house on the edge of the park where she is sure to be overlooked on all sides, and has CCTV installed, and the plot thickens.
Ruth in fact works for Aidan; he is a talented picture framer and she is his assistant. She got the job after being attacked when she worked for a previous picture framer, Steve. Ruth's attacker turns out to be none other than Mary Trelease, who threw red paint over Ruth when Ruth attempted to buy the picture Mary had bought in for framing. As a result, Ruth left her job and became a recluse for a few months, which allows her and the reader to flash back to a previous period of reclusiveness, when she first arrived in Spilling and before she was discovered by Steve.
The convoluted narrative continues in this vein. Events are told over and over again, either from the point of view of different characters, or from the point of view of the same character but with gaps filled in so we are never sure what is "true" or "complete". There is clearly something not right going on, but the only police officers who are convinced there is anything worth investigating are Charlie and her fiancé Simon, who are told by their superiors to drop the "case" and continue with their separate, normal duties.
The Charlie/Simon parts of the book are doubly frustrating. On the one hand, I find it hard to imagine that two low-level policemen could just ignore direct orders time after time, and investigate crimes on their own. And on the other, their relationship is stuck from about a book and a half ago. Although the reader is privy to lots of angst about everything from the massively inferior-feeling Charlie, who has not so much a chip but more of an entire tree on her shoulder, by the end of the book the relationship between her and Simon is just where it was at the start. Similarly, Charlie's brash sister Olivia makes a fleeting appearance, but the sparks of that relationship fly only briefly, being put on hold after far too much introduction.
The grand guignol aspects build up the tension effectively if not entirely believably (are schools really like the one depicted here?), but far too slowly. Regular readers of crime novels will quickly guess the bare bones of the Mary Trelease mystery, though the harrowing details, when revealed, are complex, rounded and well described. About half way through the book, Ruth "confesses" the secret of her pre-Spilling past to Aidan in a letter. This, too, is moving and makes the reader far more sympathetic to Ruth. Once we understand her actions, she makes much more sense, and although she does plenty of the things people always do in thrillers (puts herself into isolated spots without telling anyone where she is, despite the obsessive precautions she took earlier, and so on), I ended up liking her.
Charlie and Simon are also unrealistically careless, particularly after their previous dramatic experiences with villains in earlier books – we have Charlie's car key running out of battery so she cannot escape a nasty encounter in a pub, and Simon failing to convince a civilian to call the police at the book's climax, and then being without his mobile phone so he can't call them himself – similarly, he has not left any safety-net message for his colleagues.
There are other implausibilities, one of which is that there are two independent characters who are fiendishly sadistic over many years, and hatch convoluted, elaborate schemes that would stretch belief even if there were only one of them. There is also a straightforward, if nasty, criminal, so the small-town English landscape is pretty above-average treacherous.
Sophie Hannah can write well and describe powerful emotions, there's no doubt about that. She can also dream up a good plot, and draw the reader in. But this novel is not entirely successful due to its slow progress and aimlessness of the recurring characters. The author showed in earlier books her considerable talent at making apparently mundane events seem starkly horrific, by putting the reader into the victims' heads. Here, she seems to have given up this approach in favour of portraying criminals who do really elaborately horrible things. I hope the author makes the next book leaner, pacier, and provides more development and less build-up for her regular characters.