January 2009 sees the launch of at least two new thrillers: Neil Cross's Burial and Tom Bale's Skin and Bones, both of which are getting some PR push. At the time of writing, Cross appears to have garnered a bit more MSM page space, so forgive me for gushing here, but I feel that Bale's Skin and Bones is even better than Burial and I am surprised that not more reviewers have yet picked up on it.
Tom Bale has previously written a crime novel under his own name of David Harrison, but we'll come back to that one later. Skin and Bones is the first thriller from this author, published by Preface (a Random House imprint) in Jan '09. The first hook for me was in the synopsis; I found it full of intrigue and wondered where the author could take that kind of story. The second hook came when I started reading and I didn't want to stop. So what's it all about?
Early one morning, Julia Trent enters the Sussex village that was once the home of her recently late parents, expecting to start a house clearance. But in those unnaturally quiet village moments, Trent thinks she sees a dead body.
She carries on as normal, entering the village store, feeling in a dream of sorts. Then it hits: the evidence is there, before her eyes. And before she can retreat to safety, Trent finds herself running and fighting for her life as a gunman is on the rampage in the village.
Later, the police and the press focus on one thing only: the lone gunman who committed suicide after he had massacred the people in the village. But Julia, who survives, knows a different reality: she saw someone else involved in this atrocity and is alive to say so. But who will listen to her record of events and take it seriously? Certainly not the first and obvious option in form of the police: they have a "done and dusted" case and meet "targets". Julia withdraws and also withdraws her ability to trust.
As readers, we are also informed at the early stages, of a possible conspiracy involving property and land. The Sussex village is one of the few remaining that is untouched by commercialism and the residents revolt – led by Philip Walker, the village troublemaker – when a local landowner announces a plan for an extensive and lucrative property development. Could there be a link?
Julia slowly recovers and knows she is at risk. When Craig Walker, a former investigative journalist and son of victim Philip Walker contacts her, she needs to learn to trust again as both seek to discover the truth of what happened that day.
Bale takes the reader from an excellently horrific and frighteningly realistic depiction of the day of massacre into a similarly frightening exposé of how corporate corruption and organised crime can enter the lives of the innocent. All too soon, you are forced to abandon the sinews of the locality and its direct problems and you are jettisoned into the muscles of the power of money and greed – and don’t think it’s obvious... He narrates all with confidence in his craft and a keen eye on the detail of plotting. If you seek pace in a novel, then you will find the Top Gear version here. But there is even more depth to enjoy.
At about 100 pages in, I firmly felt that I was in the safe hands of someone from the Minette Walters Academy of Psychological Crime Fiction – OK, I made that one up. Like Walters, Bale possesses an art in playing with reader perceptions, smoke and mirrors: a behaviour, action and/or reaction can have more than one interpretation and the (potential) mistakes feed into good plotting. Julia's early experiences of paranoia are well exposed and characters coming to the fore later are multi-faceted in their behaviour, always begging the question "Why?" and providing the reader with an urge to read on.
This is a fantastic novel and I don't say that lightly. It is. Can you feel the thud as I say it? No? Well I am happy to reiterate and say it again: "This is a fantastic novel". For someone so early in their published writing career, I think this is a very hot novel and worthy of the PR/marketing spend. It both captures the climate in Britain today as well as keeps you page-turning to the last word on the last page. If it doesn't appear on a CWA award list, at least, later this year, I will eat my straw hat.
A fine and confident thriller début from an author who shows all the signs of knowing what a decent psychological thriller is all about: you must not miss this one! Want to be so engrossed that you lose sleep? Oh, boy, you will find it in Tom Bale's Skin and Bones. It's a cracker!
(Previously, Bale had a crime novel published with Crème de la Crime Books under his own name of David Harrison: Sins of the Father. Skin and Bones is set in Sussex and there is another author with that name who writes travel books on the area, hence Preface, the publisher for Skin and Bones decided a pseudonym was appropriate to avoid confusion and to suggest a "thriller" author name. Thus we have Tom Bale and what a find!)