Professor Matt Hunter used to be a priest but is now an atheist living with wife architect Wren, her teenage daughter Lucy and seven year old Amelia. They holiday in a cottage in deepest rural Oxfordshire, she to bid for a commission for a church extension in the village, he to complete his book. But the village is increasingly dominated by a charismatic preacher; many of the folk are born-again Bible bashers. And then women start to disappear.
One's first impression is that this is fiction where the pot has been boiled too long. The rural location with the creepy villagers (they attend a pre-Baptismal purging in which they all wear sunglasses) is straight out of B-movie horror films. The names themselves (Hunter for the hero, Wren for an architect, Seth for the local farmer) are not exactly subtle. The preacher is suitably extreme, there is a youth worker whose character screams paedophile, one of the policemen is a member of the flock: all these things are standard castings.
The plot is more thriller than whodunnit. The book opens with the killer baptising the first victim and then bashing her head in with a rock: lots of gory details. Thus, although the author hides the identity of the killer until the very end, we know he is a male. We also know the killer's motivation from the start. This sort of structure, starting with the horrific crime and letting us see things from more than the point of view of just the crime-solver, is increasingly common; another example is Hold Tight by Harlan Coben.
One increasingly common trend in books of this genre that I don't particularly like is the provision of back story. In Purged the back story comes in chunks. I prefer drip feed.
But the plot is always less important than the characters. The use of the family dynamic and the pressures and conflicts it entailed was another strong point for the book. So may detectives are solitary misfits and this means that their character is crucial to carry the book. Here the subsidiary characters were always more important, especially Wren and Lucy. Even the librarian, a walk-on part if ever there was one, was a brilliant character; it was like watching a cameo performance by a great actor. And Chris the preacher, the antagonist, was an interestingly complex character with many more dimensions than the stock baddy.
But what lifted this above the usual run of thrillers was the writing. There were scenes, such as the killing of the fox in the forest, which were original and spun from pure literary gold. There were many moments when the author deployed his techniques with skill and deftness. particularly strong at the little side descriptions that suddenly add three dimensions to a scene:
- "A long string of wet lettuce hung out of her mouth like an alien tongue." (p 26)
- "Marzipan lodged in his throat." (p 65)
- "they stepped inside, nostrils instantly damp with the smell of mouldy carpet." (p 95) Wow! Damp nostrils!
- "he saw a family of woodlice scuttling towards his foot. It felt like as good a cue as any to leave." (p 169)
- "He listened to hundreds of people whispering at the same time, making a sound that slithered through the room like there were snakes under the chairs." (p 215)
- The blind woman who is baptised by total immersion wearing a white shirt and a black bra. (p 239)
- "He sat there listening to the gaunt quiet." (p 347) 'Gaunt'. Wow!
- Looking back on the crematorium and seeing a cloud in the sky and confusing it with the smoke from the body. (p 352)
- "He could smell the damp pavement under his feet." (p 356)
- "God on his throne clasping his hands together in watery-eyed delight as another latchkey prodigal skipped her way down the front path." (p 18) 'Latchkey prodigal'! So modern and so effective. And the image of the 'watery-eyed' deity links seamlessly to the context of baptism. Brilliant!
- "He'd have felt less conspicuous in a dayglo mankini." (p 20)
- "He even spotted a child's toy ... face down in a puddle of sweet and sour sauce, grinding his animatronic limbs back and forth like he was slowly screwing the spring roll wedged in his crotch." (p 25)
- "Gangs of youths started to shimmer out of the concrete, with hoods up like medieval monks with ASBOs." (p 40) I adore 'shimmer'!
- "Her face reminded him of those ghostly old photographs you see hanging in stately homes, only she wasn't wearing a Victorian night dress. She was wearing a leopard skin onesie." (p 123)
- "He opened the glovebox which contained, of all things, gloves." (p 125)
- "Every time someone talks religious round here there's this flicker on your face. Like you just sat on a syringe." (p 199)
- "He felt like a bomb disposal expert trying to pick the right wire to cut. Only it was always more complicated when you happened to love the bomb." (p 300)
He also had a nice line in pathetic fallacy such as "Now that the sun had truly sunk on Hobbs Hill" (p 114)
There were also some fascinating insights:
- On church architecture: "Baptists love the Bible, so it lies there open, front and centre in the Sanctuary. Catholics love the Eucharist, so the altar sits in the spotlight." (p 95)
- The way we can keep doing mechanical things when our minds are screaming at us to stop and pay attention to a dramatic change: "Matt heard the word dead echo in his ears and yet he still went to grab another handful of tortilla chips." (p 107)
- "They started clapping (on beats one and three ... because white Christians never clap on two and four)" (p 111)
- "He had that tight-lipped strutting thing going on. The move that stressed people do." (p 220)
- "Funerals reminded him of a simple, shitty fact: that when it comes down to it, we all die alone. ... All those relationships we grow and nurture over a lifetime are just hurtling daily woards this. Cold, quiet, in a box. On our own." (p 319)
- "Everyone he'd ever known liked to look at water. Walk along a crowded beach and you'd see families pressing the legs of their deckchairs deep into the sand ... so that they could look out. ... Water is the show and people will pay a surcharge to watch it from their hotel windows, to sleep to its whispering." (p 422
- "His eyes lingered on it, willing the shadow to rise. Astonished at how quickly sin can spread from one person to the next. Like fleas. Or the plague." (p 12)
Wonderful. May 2018; 471 pages