Anyone who has ever lived in one of the UK’s myriad small seaside towns will be familiar with the cloying claustrophobia that comes with the territory. Those who don’t know what I’m talking about will be jarringly familiar with the sensation by the time they have read Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo – this book has it in spades.
It’s 2003, and former Met detective Sean Ward is on his way to a sleepy seaside town in deepest Norfolk. His promising police career perished in a hail of bullets fired by a young London gang member. Luckily, Sean lived on – albeit with a lasting limp, a range of interesting scars, and legs held together with metal pins. So, Sean has set himself up as a private detective, and jumps at the chance of tackling a cold case at the behest of campaigning lawyer Janice Mathers.
Back in 1984, 15-year-old Corinne Woodrow was convicted of the brutal murder of a classmate. His mutilated body was found at the heart of a pentagram drawn in blood – with a catatonic Corinne cowering in a nearby corner. Now, new forensic evidence places another person at the scene of the crime.
In his quest for the truth, Sean enlists the help of the local newspaper editor and also the man who led the original murder team – the shady Len Rivett. Both have secrets, but is what they are hiding important to the case? Can Sean break through the barriers put up by the people of Ernemouth who, it appears, would be happier if he went away and the whole thing was forgotten?
The action flicks between then and now with ease, as we follow both Corinne’s story, and that of the man who has been entrusted with the task of proving her innocent. Of course the two intertwine, and Cathi Unsworth proves herself a deft weaver of plotlines as the tale progresses. Central to it all is Rivett, a monster of a man who straddles both eras with an air of menace. He has been called out of retirement to help Sean. But is he really as helpful as he at first appears?
Rivett is one of a cast of well-defined characters who all have an essential part to play in the drama that unfolds. Was Corinne really as weird as she was depicted by the press at the time of her trial? And did black magic have anything to do with the killing?
The sense of time and place is brilliant – it is obvious that the author has first-hand experience of life in a small seaside resort and it’s a testament to her skills that the reader is enveloped by a growing sense of unease. And I suppose it is only right and proper that an acclaimed music journalist should feature so many of the sounds of the period in her book – it is as if the whole novel has a soundtrack as well as a storyline.
Weirdo is a cracking read which keeps you guessing right to the last page.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars