A Penny for the Hangman by Tom Savage

2 Mins read

The Virgin Islands. Sound idyllic, don’t they? Especially as the nights begin to draw in here and the temperatures plummet. Richard Branson even owns one! But all is not so wonderful on the island of St Thomas where, in May 1958, a teenage boy and his friend are planning something dastardly. Let’s make it plain, we’re not talking stink bombs and whoopee cushions here. Because 15-year-old Rodney Harper is plotting the deaths of five people and, although he doesn’t know it yet 14-year-old Wulf Anderman will be his right-hand man.

Fifty years later, in New York, magazine entertainment reporter Karen Tyler is receiving anonymous calls from an unidentified man who claims to have a career-making tale to tell. The first comes on her unlisted number, and on her birthday, and offers her the real story behind the murders all those years before. The call is timely, as it comes just weeks before a movie about the crimes, entitled Bad Boys, is due to premiere on Friday 13 March, 2009… exactly 50 years since Rodney’s parent Tobias and Lucinda Harper, Wulf’s parents Felix and Hjordis Anderman, and servant Bernice Watkins were massacred.

Subsequent calls prompt Karen to arrange a flight to St Thomas to meet her mysterious informant. She is certain he is either Rodney or Wulf – although both are legally barred from being in St Thomas – and realises this is the chance of a lifetime.

The story is told from a number of sources, including Rodney Harper’s diary, Karen’s journal and published articles, and also in the words of Karen’s boyfriend, Jim O’Brien, who acts as narrator to pull it all together. It is a neat manoeuvre, and will keep you eternally wrong-footed as you’re allowed telling glimpses of the story from a number of different angles.

The luscious and beautiful settings act as a neat counterpoint to the pure evil that lurks in the background. The story starts in the sunny and carefree world of St Thomas but, like the weather, turns dark and stormy as the action moves to Hangman Cay, where Karen finally comes face to face with the mysterious Mr Huxley. He is a man with a story to tell, but appears to be in no particular hurry to do so. And when the tempest forces her to stay overnight, Karen begins to doubt the wisdom of coming at all. Is a story really worth risking her life for?

Born in New York and raised in St Thomas, Tom Savage demonstrates an easy acquaintance with both places and deftly brings them to life. This is his first novel for 14 years (a previous work, Valentine, was made into a film by Warner Bros), but he shows no signs of ring-rustiness. I’ll admit to having sussed out part of the story early on, but the final twist came as a surprise.

My main quibble was with Karen herself. Would her editor really have sent a woman, alone, to a far away place, to meet a mysterious man who may or may not have been a murderer? And would that reporter be daft enough to trust him from the get-go? I’m not sure she would. Granted, she takes along a local news photographer on the trip to Hangman Cay, but when he leaves, shouldn’t the alarm bells be ringing in Karen’s head? This woman is far too naive for my liking! That aside, I enjoyed the insidious and unsettling feeling of evil and hope Tom Savage’s next book won’t take so long to arrive.


CFL Rating: 3 Stars

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