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Review: The House on the Cliff, By Charlotte Williams

Cool sleuth presses all the right buttons

Author and folk singer Charlotte Greig made an impressive debut with her novel A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy, in which the heroine tries to apply wisdom from the male intellectual tradition to her own life as a young student in right-on 1970s Brighton. Now writing as Charlotte Williams (she is married to the Welsh novelist John Williams), she has moved into the crime genre.

Billed as the first in a series, the book begins with what looks like a straightforward case for psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew. A strikingly attractive young actor, Gwydion Morgan, turns up at her office requesting help with his button phobia. He has a role in a historical drama and is worried about how he will cope with his costume. Struck by the mixture of genuine anxiety and staginess in his talk, Jessica proposes to refer him to a colleague who specialises in phobias, but Gwydion is resistant.

A keen Freudian, she wonders if the real problem is some kind of secret he needs to "unbutton". She takes him on, uncomfortably aware of their mutual attraction, but despite her care, Gwydion seems to be deteriorating fast. She gets an urgent summons from his family's remote mansion, an exotic pile she breathlessly describes as "like something out of a fairy story", before chiding herself: "Make your mind up, Jessica." Gwydion's parents are "famous for Wales": his mother Arianrhod is a charismatic former actress and his father Evan a lothario theatre director. The mad, bad Morgans are all the more compelling since Jessica's own family life is such a disaster; her husband Bob has been unfaithful and her surly teenage daughter, Nella, is testing sexual boundaries with an unappetising older man.

This is a tightly focused psychological drama with a small cast of characters and only one crime – a mysterious drowning 20 years previously – yet Williams manages to generate considerable intrigue from such minimal ingredients. References to the Mabinogion, Lacan and the 19th-century novelist Maria Edgeworth raise the tone above most crime fare, and the setting, which switches from the bustle of Cardiff to the wild Pembrokeshire coast, provides the perfect backdrop for a tale of raw emotions and explosive rage. I look forward to more outings for Williams's cool, clever, yet flawed psychological sleuth.

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