Belinda Bauer's third book represents a remarkable achievement: almost a return to the good old Victorian triple-decker novel of suspense, but created with a deftness that allows each book to stand alone. Throughout Blacklands and Darkside, her previous novels, ran the stories of characters in an Exmoor village, notably two people whose lives became intertwined: the young boy, Steven, and the village policeman, Jonas Holly. Steven lured a serial child-killer out of jail and into a trap, but encountered Holly and his wife, Lucy, who died in circumstances which have haunted Steven since.
We don't need to have read the previous books to be seized straight away by the plot of this one. Children left alone in parked cars have been disappearing with the parents finding only a note saying "You don't love him", or her. Caught up in this maelstrom of mystery and guilt, Steven is by now an older and a wiser boy, developing a delicate teenage love affair with Em, the pony-loving daughter of a rich landowner. This isn't the traditional squirearchy, however, but a representative of the new class of incomers willing to break with local tradition.
Out of this conflict between the new forces at work and the threatened order of the countryside comes the grotesque psychopathy that generates the cruelty and violence at the heart of the book. Nowhere is the conflict more acute than in the ranks of the local hunt, forced to disband and get rid of most of the hounds. Steven soon gets involved in the turmoil, and so, alongside him, does PC Holly. The police personnel brought in to try to locate the missing youngsters reflect the new dispensation, too. As DI Reynolds reflects, he hadn't got a first in criminology and a 2.1 in law so that he could return to a primitive past, to "lynch monkeys and burn witches". He is consciously making a powerful effort to ignore ancient prejudices.
The story rushes along on a tide of suspense, but creates a plausible cast of characters, including Steven's harsh and twisted family, from whom he is at last extracting some elements of reluctant affection. The solidity of this background, and the brisk actuality of Bauer's observation, give the macabre events centre-stage a hellish reality. Is this what really happens on the new Cold Comfort Farm?