Sceptre £17.99, 304pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nightwoods, By Charles Frazier

When your debut (Cold Mountain, 1997) wins the National Book Award and is made into an Oscar-winning film, and your second novel (Thirteen Moons, 2006) receives similar eulogies, a touch of performance anxiety might be expected. But Charles Frazier's third novel is as accomplished as his first two, while casting a knowing glance towards the big screen.

The location and premise are immediately compelling. It is a decade or two after the end of the Second World War. A young woman, Luce, lives alone as caretaker of an old lodge in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. Her family background is broken – an alcoholic mother who abandoned her two daughters; a father caught up in his devastating memories of the war. Luce's content, if lonely, routine implodes when her sister Lily is murdered by her second husband, Bud.

Lily's young twins from her previous widowed marriage move in with Luce, mute as a result of the trauma. But unknown to Luce, Bud has escaped conviction due to the skills of a wily lawyer, and is intent on hunting down the stash of robbed cash Lily hid before he killed her. The only souls who may know the whereabouts of the money are the twins. Simultaneously (and conveniently for the inevitable film), the eligible grandson of the deceased caretaker of the lodge, Stubblefield, is heading to look over his new inheritance.

In anyone else's hands, this might turn out to be a gripping but ultimately forgettable thriller. Frazier, however, is a writer whose spare prose paradoxically oozes atmosphere – you can almost smell the verdant pine trees and hear the crack of twigs underfoot. The history of the place – Cherokee Indians turfed out by Spaniards and then American settlers – wafts through, adding a richness and depth. Whether of landscapes, customs or people, Frazier's perception is acute: "The day the children came was high summer, the sky thick with humidity and the surface of the lake flat and iron blue. On the far side, mountains layered above the town, hazing upward in shades of olive until they became lost in the pale grey sky."

The similes are as majestic as the vistas: when Luce's old-lady friend sings songs of maidens being killed, "love and murder and possession fit tight against one another as an outgrown wedding band on a swollen finger".

Vulnerable children are notoriously difficult to portray in fiction without sentimentality or bathos. Frazier's stoical approach is dignified yet conjures up disturbing images. When the twins hide in a dangerous spot on the mountain where one step would hurtle them to their deaths, "The stuff they fear is unrelated to a hole in the ground... The horror is other people. The things they think up to do to you."

Some of the action seems designed with the celluloid incarnation rather than plausibility in mind – the serendipity with which love blossoms; the ease with which Bud procures a job as the dry town's procurer of alcohol – but Frazier is sage enough to cast a few obstacles in the way. And beneath the chilling, photogenic story, the writing remains beautiful. A moment of quiet symbolism in the forest captures the heartless rules of nature in which the strong kill the weak at every level: "Under the hemlock, everything lies dark and quiet... Listen hard and you hear a sound like the ticking of many wristwatches, the fall of dead needles, building in tiny increments a deep thousand-year bed to kill weaker things that try to grow underneath." Nature red in tooth and claw, indeed.

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