The Postmaster looked over my shoulder. As I turned to look I saw a flicker of movement from across the street. I felt unseen eyes peer at me.
He walked away without another word. I watched as he climbed onto his bicycle and sped away down the street. I turned back and looked over my shoulder.
Someone had been watching us.
1904. Thomas Bexley, one of the first forensic photographers, is called to the sleepy and remote Welsh village of Dinas Powys, several miles down the coast from the thriving port of Cardiff. A young girl by the name of Betsan Tilny has been found murdered in the woodland – her body bound and horribly burnt. But the crime scene appears to have been staged, and worse still: the locals are reluctant to help.
As the strange case unfolds, Thomas senses a growing presence watching him, and try as he may, the villagers seem intent on keeping their secret. Then one night, in the grip of a fever, he develops the photographic plates from the crime scene in a makeshift darkroom in the cellar of his lodgings. There, he finds a face dimly visible in the photographs; a face hovering around the body of the dead girl – the face of Betsan Tilny.
Thanks to Tracy Fenton of Compulsive Readers who arranged this blog tour and to Orion for sending me a copy of this book. I actually got to meet the author while I was in Harrogate. He was at the Orion Proof Party. Seemed like a nice person. I didn’t pick up a copy then because I’d already signed up for this tour.
It’s 1904 and Thomas Bexley, an early forensic photographer from London, heads to Wales to investigate the murder of 16 year old Betsan Tilney. Something is obviously wrong in the village of Dinas Powys and the locals really aren’t helpful. The Head of the Council is convinced, or at least is trying to convince Bexley that ‘gypsies’ killed her and that Betsan was a whore so she deserved it. The scene is obviously staged and the body has been left too long in a disused church cellar.
It doesn’t help that Bexley appears to have an infection causing a migraine and hallucinations. He’s been put up in a dingy inn with a mardy landlord and rats in the roof. No-one is talking. It’s clear he’s not welcome in the village. And someone is watching him.
The writing, in the form of Thomas Bexley’s memoir and diary, is very reminiscent of newspaper writing styles of the time, the style of ‘educated’ men, and feels authentic. I find it difficult to read that style as it’s often over-wrought, but Sam Hurcom does a fine job of making it readable while remaining authentic to the time.
The atmosphere developed in the diary entries is creepy and the sense of madness, mischief and misdirection palpable. Seriously, even before they got to the dead body photography, I was creeped out. The stench of death was real as I read. It becomes tense within the first couple of days charted in the memoir/diary. I had a constant feeling of ‘I want to know what happens next, but I also don’t want to look.’ I was very worried for Thomas Bexley’s safety.
I thought I knew who the murderer was, but I was wrong. It was a masterly piece of misdirection. I devoured the second half of the novel in three hours, the time passed in the blink of an eye. I don’t think I moved the whole time other than to turn the page.
Brilliantly atmospheric piece of supernatural/historical crime fiction.