Skin and Bones by Tom Bale (Preface, £12.99) starts grippingly and chillingly with the story of how Julia, visiting the village in Sussex where her parents recently died, runs down to the post office for a few supplies, to find herself in the middle of a massacre. A gunman is rampaging through the tiny hamlet, indiscriminately shooting people. Julia narrowly escapes – or so she thinks. She realises that the murderer is playing with her, chasing her in a macabre game. Just as he catches her and is about to shoot her, a badly wounded, older resident distracts the murderer for long enough for Julia to make a temporary escape, by climbing a tree on the village green. What she witnesses from there is even more shocking than the preceding events. Then she is shot.
After racing through these early chapters, I wondered if the rest of the book could possibly live up to this amazingly tense and dramatic start. The answer is a qualified yes. The plot is given momentum by the fact of one character knowing something that nobody else, the police included, believes – and this knowledge is exactly what is putting that person in peril. Or is it?
In a separate thread, Craig Walker, a former investigative journalist who has lost his nerve, becomes involved. He has personal connections with the village, and so helps an ex-colleague Abby, now a freelancer, to follow the story of the terrible killing and the possible reasons for it. Abby digs around and finds various shady connections with drug dealers, crime lords and property developers – not an edifying trio of professions, and one that rapidly leads her and Craig into danger themselves.
These parts of the books are the most successful, as the two main characters separately cope with the various threats to their lives, and decide to fight back. Less successful, in my opinion, are the portrayals of the villains, which do not quite gel.
Nevertheless, Skin and Bones is an extremely fast-paced thriller whose pages any reader will be desperate to turn to find out what twist and turn is coming next. There are some very good characterisations, particularly Vanessa, the wife of the local lord of the manor. But there are also some quite weak ones, for example her indolent nephew Toby, and quite a few predictable cliches. But overall, the book works. Many of the plotlines are cleverly tied together as events reach their conclusion – everything and everyone turns out to be more connected than they had realised, and there are several satisfying aspects to the resolution. Skin and Bones is definitely a book that will keep you occupied while the world carries on around you.