The book opens with a hot air balloon ride ending with a crash when a shooter on the ground kills the pilot—Sharon Bolton is superb @ exciting openings & this may be her best. In the basket amongst the balloon party are two sisters, Jessica & Bella, a police detective and a nun. (I’m thankful the author used the term ‘nun’ properly to mean a woman religious who belongs to a cloistered order.) Apparently Bella is killed in the crash & both the police & the shooter endeavour to find Jessica. So we have basically a thriller plot: will the murderer catch up with the survivor before the police find her. Except we find she is equally afraid of the police, & for good reason. Altho’ in many respects very different, the feel of Dead Woman Walking resembles Dead Scared. In both an undercover woman police detective investigates the operations of a criminal gang. That is all I shall say about the plot, which is, as we expect from Sharon Bolton, full of unexpected but well-prepared twists. The principal one I should have suspected, and a back check indicated it was well-clued.
The settings, as is usual again with Sharon Bolton, are to die for. I have had the good fortune to visit Kelso & Lindisfarne, & even better for this story to have driven the A68 through Northumberland—I had no idea any place in a civilised country could feel so remote & eerie, and that was on an A-road, not hiking through the forest. Also I’ve visited York, so could visualise the frightening chase along the city wall & the narrow passages of the old city within.
I enjoy this author even more for her characters & relationships than the excellent plots, & here the story of the two sisters in the back-story was very poignant, especially Jessica’s inability to accept her sister’s vocation whilst yet admiring & loving her. The depiction of Bella (or Sister Mary Magdelene—I expect her religious name is an allusion) overthows completely the usual stereotypes of woman religious as simple, childish & cute in a saccharine way—this is one kick arse nun. Jessica stole my heart like Lacey Flint, & broke it ultimately, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why.
As for the villains & their enterprise: the Faa family are probably the worst group of subhuman degenerates I’ve encountered & their particular ciminal MO unspeakable: worse even than sex trafficking or child pornography or the snuff-film gang in Dead Scared. Even given their ethnic background, the casual way in which they preyed upon the helpless, without a trace of conscience, continues to disturb me. Because we also are given a full description of life in the convent, we see humanity @ its most depraved & @ its holiest in this story.
But I much appreciate that Sharon Bolton isn’t perfect & gives me something to criticise. Most of the nuns, especially the Mother Superior (tho’ she gets better @ the end) are depicted stereotypically and condescendingly. (Strange how we tend to show holy women as childish.) It’s not any more amusing that members of a religious order should watch TV cop shows than that anyone else does. (A friend of mine who joined a religious order was a big fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Or that they like to use criminal slang & refer to the cops as ‘the filth’ (a term I learned in the ’70s from reading Ted Lewis, the creator of Jack Carter). I had a problem with the very bent copper in the story as well; his initial motive was well-supported, but I could not understand how he could continue to live with himself whilst remaining involved in such hideous crimes. Also, cleaning up the backstory of Jessica & Bella’s family made for a slightly perfunctory ending, tho’ welcome.
I was overjoyed by the slight intrusion of a paranormal element. The peacocks were purely decorative—but then that’s about all they are good for (as a Roman satirist remarked, you can’t eat the feathers!) & their names were delightful. Not only is Sharon Bolton a great writer, she also makes us feel that she really enjoys her craft.