Black Wood by SJI Holliday

2 Mins read

Deep, dark woods have been the stuff of gripping tales since Red Riding Hood was a lass, so the title of this book is surely enough to alert the reader before they’ve even opened the cover.

Twenty-three years ago, in the little town of Banktoun, just a short bus ride away from Edinburgh, two young girls went into the woods to play. Their innocent afternoon’s entertainment ended in tragedy, with one suffering a paralysing injury, the other left with deep mental scars. Wheelchair-bound Claire lives and works in the town where her accident happened, while Jo only returned to Banktoun after her demons dragged her back to a place she hoped she’d never see again .

Jo now works in the local bookshop, and when a familiar face appears in the store, all manner of painful memories are dredged up for her. There were two boys at the scene of the accident all those years ago, and the outwardly friendly young man about to buy a book was one of them… although Gareth Maloney shows no sign of recognising Jo. What to do? No-one seems inclined to believe Jo and her life begins to unravel –  first, the relationship she thought was rock solid begins to look more than a little rocky, then her own fragile hold on sanity begins to slip. For 23 years, she has blamed herself for Claire’s accident – now she has the chance to confront one of the people who really caused the tragedy. Can she hold it together long enough to enact her revenge?

Meanwhile, the seriously underworked local police force is being challenged to do some real detective work for a change, with Sgt Davie Gray at the helm. A man clad all in black and wearing a balaclava is attacking young women on a disused railway track much used by dog walkers, joggers and courting couples. So far, the assailant has been thwarted in his crimes but as the violence escalates there is a sense of growing panic in the sleepy town. Davie is loath to pass the case over to the big city CID but can local knowledge win the day?

Black Wood is a thriller with a hugely panoramic sense of location; wherever the action takes place, you’re given a grandstand view and will feel at the heart of it all. It is so realistic that there are times when you almost feel like shouting ‘he’s behind you!’, so involving is the narrative. Even so, Holliday’s skill at painting the backdrops is surpassed by her first-class characterisations, from neurotic Jo, and strangely closed-in Claire to confused Craig (an old friend of Jo’s and now her boss), nosey neighbour Bridie Goldstone and the enigmatic Gareth, all are filled in with great attention to detail.

There’s a strangely claustrophobic sense of small community in this book, and after a while you begin to wonder who to trust. Star of the show, though, is the ever-dependable Sgt Davie Gray, whom I christened Plod the Mod. He rides a classic Lambretta, loves The Jam and Paul Weller and has a borderline-questionable hair style. He is also a bloody good police officer and the man that everyone seems to turn to in their hour of need. In short, Davie is just brilliant and his quirky originality makes him stand out.

If you like your crime stories deep, dark and shocking then this is the book for you. Black Wood is a thriller filled with secrets and misdirection by a debut author who is surely destined to take her place among the cream of Scottish crime writers.

Click here for more Scottish crime fiction.

Black & White Publishing

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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