Time for my second book in the Great Transworld Crime Caper: Sacrifice by S.J. Bolton. I picked this because I’d never heard of it, Tess Gerritsen said (on the cover) that it was a ‘chilling, mesmerizing thriller’ and because I thought the blurb sounded all kinds of creepy:
“Moving to remote Shetland has been unsettling enough for consultant surgeon Tora Hamilton, even before the gruesome discovery that makes one rain-drenched afternoon. Deep in the peat soil of her field she uncovers the body of a young woman. The heart has been removed, and marks etched into her skin bear an eerie resemblance to carvings Tora has seen in her own cellar. But as Tora begins to ask questions, terrifying threats start rolling in like the cold island mist.”
One of the reasons I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was its eerie, insular Swedish setting but after reading Sacrifice I now think the dark and wild Shetland Islands – or at least the picture of them painted in this book – are an even better backdrop for a twisty thriller than anything snowy Scandinavia has to offer. Throw in some violent, freezing seas and a landscape of near-deserted roads and lonely farmlands and you have all the necessary ingredients for a frighteningly dark tale.
Tora, who narrates this story in the first person, is one of the the only outsiders on an island full of natives – and that includes her husband, Duncan, who grew up there. An obstetrician, Tora is drawn to the mystery of the heartless body found yards from her home not just because she discovered it, but because an examination shows that the woman gave birth shortly before her death. Dissatisfied with the findings of the official investigation, Tora embarks on her own, with both her and the reader unable to even imagine what horrors it will lead her to uncover.
What I really liked about Tora is that she’s a bit of a disaster: she is socially awkward, always saying the wrong thing and inadvertently rubbing anyone she can up the wrong way. This made me really root for her and her amateur sleuthing, and join her in her paranoia when she began to feel like everyone on the island was turning against her, and possibly joining forces behind her back.
In an interview with the author on Amazon.co.uk, Bolton is asked about her literary influences. Her response: “If I ever write my masterpiece, it will have an opening line like those of Dick Francis and a first chapter on a par with John Grisham’s. The prose will be so perfect readers might suspect it has been written by Thomas Harris and the twists and turns of the plot will make Dan Brown weep. The characters will as finely drawn as Jane Austen’s and it will be more atmospheric than a work by Dickens in his darkest mood. Oh, and when he gets to the end, Stephen King will say to himself, “How on earth did she think of that?”
Now I’ve never read Austen (although, before you all start shouting at me, I have bought the books and cracking them open is on my To Do list) and it’s been so long since I read Dickens – childhood – that I have only the vaguest of recollections of how atmospheric he was, but on all other charges I think Sacrifice pretty much satisfies requirements, and perhaps even outdoes Grisham’s first chapter and Dan Brown’s twists and turns.
But there’s a but. Not a big but, but a but all the same. In the third act, this novel takes a leap into the Twilight Zone and for me, it was a leap too far. Its events became decidedly unbelievable. I see, of course, the irony in this – all fiction is made up, and crime thrillers are generally about events that don’t exactly happen to any of us in our ordinary, everyday lives. (At least, I hope they don’t!) But yet we believe their story lines because the author has managed to make them feel real within the context of the novel’s fictional universe, and I felt this was missing here. And so instead of breathlessly running through the pages towards the end, I was distracted, thinking, Well, this has got a bit ridiculous, hasn’t it?
The thing is it was actually a really good idea for a thriller and just as Bolton hoped Stephen King would one day say about a book of hers, I wondered how did she come up with that?! I just felt the rest of the novel didn’t sit with it all that comfortably. The suspension of disbelief should be at the same level the whole way through. By that I mean if you’re going to, say, have aliens land in your third act, then put something equally unrealistic in the first and second, thereby making it all realistic, at least in the context of the novel.
And yet I enjoyed this book. It was certainly a page-turner and I loved its Shetland setting. Did the ending let me down? Yes. It may have just been my personal taste, but it did. A little bit. But will I look out for Bolton’s next book? Yes. Will I read it? Definitely.
And now I really want to visit the Shetland Islands.
But only during the day.