A quality literary mystery is a tricky thing to pull off. The required elements of psychological acuity, plot invention, engaging settings and prose style allow all too easily for cracks to appear in a conceit's veneer. Great exponents of the form, from the classic, such as Daphne du Maurier and Charles Dickens, to contemporary writers such as Donna Tartt and Mark Mills, have all created, sometimes just the once, works that manage both to thrill and arrest the emotions in equal measure.
Lucie Whitehouse's debut, The House at Midnight, managed that elusive ruse a couple of years ago, so it was with trepidation that I began her follow-up. I needn't have worried. The Bed I Made is a carefully played puzzle which second-guesses the reader's suspicions to provide a novel of moodiness, tension and empathy. The House at Midnight took the timeworn country-house thriller and peopled it with the kind of amoral elite at the heart of Donna Tartt's The Secret History. The Bed I Made is its own beast, although it has plenty of the mounting anxiety that Hitchcock utilised when he narrowed his heavy lids on the potential terror in domestic and romantic milieus.
Whitehouse's narrator, Kate, is a suitably plucky heroine, two parts feisty to one part vulnerable. A translator of fiction, she can work from anywhere, which is convenient when, after a broken love affair, she suddenly decamps from her London flat for self-enforced exile on a wintry Isle of Wight. An ominous opening has Kate watching from one of the island's harbours as the lifeboat tows an empty sailing dingy back to shore. It is minus its owner, Alice Frewin, whom Kate had briefly met on her arrival. Alice's supposed drowning, her husband's trauma and the workings of the local rumour mill form one storyline, while a series of flashbacks draw out the real reason why Kate fled Richard, her enigmatic but changeable boyfriend.
Playing the reader like a trout on a line, Whitehouse creates an ever-shifting tale in which a sure sense of time and place hunkers down alongside a grinding feeling of impending doom. Kate's fear of the "griffin-like" Richard is the staccato motor that drives the story's disquieting trajectory. Their first wild Soho night sparked a relationship which proved exciting, in a knee-trembling, carpet-burn kind of way, but was unpredictable. The discovery that he is married is just the beginning of Kate's learning curve. We realise that there's something "not quite right" about tricky Dicky. The circumstances preceding Kate's exit gradually emerge, and the emphasis shifts towards their final cost. For much of the novel, how much Richard is a nuisance or a genuine threat is cleverly left uncertain. Likewise, whether danger might lie elsewhere.
Much like du Maurier's Cornwall and Tartt's Vermont, Whitehouse's Isle of Wight is as significant a character as any human within its confines. And it's not a pretty one. Out of season, rain-soaked, storm-weathered and poverty-stricken, it is at the mercy of the elements and the economic downturn. Which naturally allows for some great noir touches. "More than I could remember wanting anything in my adult life, I wanted to go back to London. The ferry ride across the Solent had turned into something else in my mind, the strip of water now Atlantic in significance," recognises Kate. "I felt the history of the Island all the time, as if the past were so close to the surface that occasionally it broke through to the present." The ghosts haunting Kate are as much the terrain's as they are her own.
Whitehouse has written a smart, flirtatious game of lit-tease. The reader is kept speculating but information is never held back to the extent that it looks like authorial scheming. The result is gripping, believable and, at its best, unnerving. Just don't expect it to be stocked by the Isle of Wight tourist board.