Sunday, September 25, 2011

Book Review of S. J. Bolton's Now You See Me

Now You See Me, by S. J. Bolton
Review by guest writer Jane

Jane is a retired accountant and bookstore owner who enjoys reading and collecting Irish crime novels, talking about her favorites on several mystery discussion forums and writing book reviews. This summer, she returned to her girlhood passion for reading Gothic thrillers.

My first reading passion was for the tales of mystery and suspense called "modern Gothic thrillers." From the time I was old enough to peruse the adult section of the public library in the small southern town where I grew up, I hunted down the novels of Daphne du Maurier, Anya Seton, Mary Stewart, and fell in love with the prolific Barbara Mertz, writing as Barbara Michaels, who eventually published 30 wonderful novels of suspense.

The City University of New York's Lilia Melani teaches a course called "The Gothic Experience." In her course introduction, she identifies Ann Radcliffe, the most popular and best-paid novelist of 18th-century England, as the first great Gothic novelist: "She added suspense, painted evocative landscapes and moods or atmosphere, portrayed increasingly complex, fascinatingly horrifying, evil villains, and focused on the heroine and her struggle with him." Her best works, Professor Melani continues, are A Sicilian Romance (1790), The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797).

Although Professor Melani does not include popular Gothic fiction in her course readings, she speaks of these modern Gothic or Gothic romance novels and opines that Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (1938) is the quintessential modern Gothic thriller. Melani is far less excited by the mass-market novels written in the 1960s: "They were particularly written for women by women and started when some novels were published by Ace Books written by Victoria Holt and Phyllis Whitney. These novels follow a pattern: an innocent, inexperienced, young heroine suspects her superior suitor or husband, who is usually older, often wealthy, and worldly-wise, of a crime; she may have to compete with an older woman for his affections, a competition she wins. The book covers are typically stereotyped with a young woman fleeing a mansion or castle looming in the background."

I wonder what Professor Melani would think of British mystery writer S. J. Bolton? Based on her first three novels, Sacrifice, Awakening and Blood Harvest, she has been hailed as "the high priestess of rural gothic crime." The title is apt; these books are "lush with creepy British atmosphere," with Sacrifice set on one of the Shetland Islands and the other two in isolated villages. True to Gothic tradition, the narrators, or main characters, are women, and the books include a hint of romance and dark family secrets. But Bolton's women are strong, professional women; specifically, an obstetrician, a veterinarian and a psychiatrist. And one female in her books is often deformed or disabled.

Reviewers have called S. J. Bolton the "new queen of suspense," so when I read the plot description on the dust-cover flap of her new book, Now You See Me, and noticed the urban setting, I wondered if I were about to read some sort of Mary-Higgins-Clark-goes-to-London novel. Well, so much for flap reading! Now You See Me is not only a fine example of a modern Gothic thriller, it's a police procedural.

The protagonist is Detective Constable Lacey Flint of the London Metropolitan Police's Sapphire unit, which specializes in crimes against women. Lacey has been on the force for four years. After interviewing a victim of gang rape in a seedy part of London, Lacey returns to her car to find a woman with a slashed throat and partial disembowelment. The date is August 31—the date when Polly Nichols, the first victim of Jack the Ripper, was found dead in Victorian London some 11 decades earlier. And before long, other apparent copycat cases follow.

Lacey is herself a longtime Ripperologist. That's right, an expert in the five undisputed Jack the Ripper cases in London's East End in 1888 and 1889. For the first part of Now You See Me, we are smothered in Ripper lore, gory description and lectures. (Bolton has well researched the subject. She lists, among other references, Patricia Cornwell's Anatomy of a Killer.) If you have a low tolerance for this kind of thing, you can skim the first half of the book. With a third of the book to go, Bolton adds a major twist. A suspect has been found through DNA left on the third victim. The Major Investigation Team is celebrating the close of the case. Then, into the squad room, with solicitors in tow, walk several men who provide information that will turn the case upside down. Get ready for a five-star finish!

Gothic suspense lovers, don't dismay. Most of the elements of Bolton's earlier thrillers are present. Lacey is befriended by a freelance journalist named Emma Boston who has a missing right ear and burn marks on her neck. There's a hint of romance: Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury becomes both romantically interested in Lacey and suspicious about her past. The dark family secrets are there, but I can't reveal them. Revelation of the secrets, however, explains Lacey's rather enigmatic behavior, her fascination for serial killers and propensity for slipping down to Camden late at night for sexual adventure. And it also explains why Julie Andrews sings My Favourite Things in Lacey's head throughout the book.

I believe Professor Melani would approve of Bolton's modern Gothic thrillers!


  1. Hi Jane, All,

    Great post.

    NOW YOU SEE ME sounds great and quite different than her first two books, AWAKENING & SACRIFICE, which are also very good.

    I like SJ Bolton a lot and I'm looking forward to reading her new one.


  2. Thanks, Susie, for your comments. In a way I wrote this review for you. A good many months ago on NBIE, I chided you for reading books by a Mary Higgins Clark finalist.

    This past July, Bolton's BLOOD HARVEST was short-listed for the Theakston Old Peculier 2010 best mystery of the year. Then, I noticed a blog by your fellow Chicagoan, Libby Hellmann, who had been on the reading panel for the Mary Higgins awards. She enjoyed Bolton's thrillers, too. So I picked up one at the library.

    You really knew what you were talking about, kiddo! And so did Libby!


  3. Hi Jane,

    I'm glad you posted a review for Bolton's new book, Now You See Me. I put it on my TBR list and forgot about it.

    I started CELL 8 today and I'm going to read LETHAL INVESTMENTS by KO Dahl next, then NOW YOU SEE ME.