Blood Harvest By SJ Bolton

A killer mix that reaps rewards

Barry Forshaw
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:48

Does your repertoire of quotes from Nietzsche consist only of the shop-worn "that which does not kill us makes us stronger"? If so, it's time to add a second (rapidly moving up the Nietzschean hit parade): the one about avoiding battling monsters for fear of becoming a monster yourself, along with its chaser: if you gaze into the abyss, it will also gaze into you. The latter idea makes a reappearance in S J Bolton's frisson-generating Blood Harvest. It's hardly surprising that this aphorism is so popular with crime writers: after all, it's basically a paradigm for the genre in the 21st century.

What makes Blood Harvest such a satisfyingly atmospheric 400-odd pages, however, is its clever synthesis of two surefire strategies: the slow-burning supernatural mystery in which the dark secret of a town or community is gradually uncovered by a vulnerable protagonist; and the dark psychological crime narrative. Bolton (or her editor) is no doubt aware that the supernatural market is a limited one (unless you're Stephen King or Stephenie Meyer), and performs some deft surgery in stitching together the two approaches.

Tom Fletcher is 10 years old and has moved with his family to a secluded village, Heptonclough, on the moors. Things quickly turn sour: a series of childish pranks begins, mostly directed at Tom, but these incidents shift into the dangerous and threatening. Is someone trying to drive the family away? And is young Tom correct in thinking that somebody is always watching him?

This basic premise is handled with assurance by Bolton, whose previous books, Sacrifice and Awakening (while markedly less ambitious), signalled the arrival of a talented, popular writer. Bolton's locale, the cloistered Heptonclough, is laid out with geographical exactitude, and her evocation of a landscape fraught with dread and foreboding is sure-footed.

But perhaps Blood Harvest scores most strongly in how the author presents the action, which we see from three perspectives; that of the new vicar of the town, Harry Laycock; the youthful victim, Tom Fletcher; and a child psychiatrist, Evi Oliver, who is commissioned to work with the beleaguered family. Bolton's use in earlier books of a strong, capable female protagonist was able enough, if hardly groundbreaking; the split focus here illuminates the narrative in a variety of surprising ways. But despite this approach, Bolton is a solid, old-fashioned writer – and what higher praise could one give her?

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