AUTHOR: George Mann
349 pages, Titan Books, ISBN 9781783294091 (Print)/ 9781783294107 (ebook)
DESCRIPTION: (back cover copy) After losing her job and her partner in one fell swoop, journalist Elspeth Reeves is back in her mother’s house in the sleepy village of Wilsby-under-Wychwood, wondering where it all went wrong. Then a body is found in the neighbouring Wychwoods: a woman ritually slaughtered, with cryptic symbols scattered around her corpse. Elspeth recognizes these from a local myth of the Carrion King, a Saxon magician who once held a malevolent court deep in the forest. As more murders follow, Elspeth joins her childhood friend DS Peter Shaw to investigate, and the two discover sinister village secrets harking back decades.
MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
MY THOUGHTS: George Mann’s Wychwood is one of those hybrid creatures: 90% straightforward murder mystery, 10% possible supernatural thriller. It’s a style I particularly enjoy when done well, and George Mann does it well. Although different in focus and authorial style, Wychwood reminded me very much of Stephen King’s Cujo: was the titular dog really possessed by the spirit of an executed serial killer or was it just rabid? I found myself asking the same question here: is the serial killer really employing supernatural means for some, if not all, of the kills, or does the killer only think the supernatural aspect is working? By the mid-point of Wychwood, the answer becomes apparent to the reader if not to the investigating characters.
The investigators are that very typical British pair: the intrepid reporter and the rule-bending Detective Sargeant. Elspeth Reeves has barely had time to settle into a between-jobs visit to her hometown when she stumbles upon a murder scene practically in her mother’s back yard being investigated by DS Peter Shaw, who happens to be a childhood friend she’s fallen out of touch with. It’s a meet-cute (or remeet-cute, if you will) the author thankfully gets out of the way early in the book, so the characters and reader can concentrate on the series of murders that need investigating.
It’s no surprise that Elspeth is the most well-developed character in the novel; at least 80% of it is told from her point-of-view with occasional break-aways for a peek into the mind of the killer or the victims. Elspeth is a strong, capable lead, with an engaging personality and clear investigative chops, but also with the kind of impulsiveness necessary to launch her into the dangerous situations and crime-scene misunderstandings this type of story requires. To Mann’s credit, these scenes never feel forced – there’s a reason for every questionable decision Elspeth makes, and they all work. Peter Shaw is somewhat less well-developed: his role mostly seems to be to feed Elspeth details she shouldn’t otherwise know, to drive her from place to place, and to provide an awkward potential love-interest for Elspeth to write off and other characters to comment on. In those terms, he performs the role well and does what’s needed of him to keep the plot moving and the excitement high.
The suspects and ancilliary characters are diverse and suburb-colorful: local newspaper staff, local theatrical troupe, local business owners who all provide clues to what’s going on whether they realize it or not (and also of course provide a fair number of red herrings for the reader and the main characters). Some are fun (stage manager / newspaper columnist Rose), some are infuriating (thriller author Mick Williams) and some are harmlessly pretentious (bookstore owner Philip Cowper).
The clues to solving the mystery are parceled out fairly; the reveal and resolution don’t come from out of left field. This is partially and very effectively because of the cutaway scenes to the killer’s POV providing hints that Elspeth and Peter don’t have access to, provided in such a way that the reader doesn’t become aware of the killer’s identity too far ahead of the main characters.
The background world-building is also wonderfully rich. The murders are based around a local legend of the Carrion King and his ragtag court. Like the hints about the killer’s identity, the details of the legend are slowly revealed throughout the novel. I believe Mann created this legend from whole cloth, but it’s so well-crafted I keep expecting to find it in an old collection of Anglo-Saxon tales. And Mann also takes full advantage of the fact that stories change depend on whose telling them. The details of the Carrion King’s life and end vary as Elspeth reads old sources (a childhood book of legends), consults local experts (bookstore owner/author Cowper and college professor Byron Miller each have different takes), and talks to those whose work is influenced by the legends (thriller author Williams and playwright David Keel). The varying details in each recounting enhance the overall mystery, providing clues and fake-outs both.
The novel ends with a thriller-type chase through dark woods (naturally, given the book’s title and the legend’s setting) straight out of the type of books the Williams character is famous for writing, another nod to the hybrid nature of Wychwood as a whole.
Wychwood is a fun read, with something for fans of the cozy mystery, the thriller, and the supernatural investigation genres.
Note: I did receive an advanced reading copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Website problems prevented me from posting the review before the novel’s publication date.