Written by Betsy Reavley — As Mark Billingham pointed out in an insightful essay a few years ago, the key to genuine suspense is to be found in character rather than relying on twists and cliffhangers. That ability to make readers empathise with a protagonist is part of the craft of fiction that Betsy Reavley has mastered in her third novel. The Quiet Ones draws you deep into the inner lives of its characters as their world is turned upside down. It’s a captivating crime novel with the emotional heft of the best kind of horror story.
Family can be murder, as the front cover teases, and this is an account of complicated lives, domestic upheaval and the threat of extreme violence approaching. Josie and Charlie live a contented if slightly misaligned marriage that involves him doing a job he hates, so she can stay at home in Bethnal Green and be a writer. The Quiet Ones is in that tradition of novels about novelists – a sub-genre Stephen King made his own for a while – and there’s more than a hint of the autobiographical.
Josie is a writer of disturbing stories who – like Reavley – has an independent eBook publisher rather than a major imprint. “I’m told the problem is that none of my stories fall into clear categories and genres – as though that’s a bad thing,” Josie tells us. She’s also unapologetic about her choice of subject matter, though there’s a suggestion that she’s channeling the bitterness of the past into her dark fiction. Clearly, this is where author and character depart as we learn more about the uniquely troubled existence of this novel’s protagonist.
It’s a bracing experience to read a crime novel that isn’t about a perfect life being torn apart and then repaired as you reach the final page. In Reavley’s story, it gradually emerges that Josie’s privileged upbringing – she had the pony and went to boarding school – with her adoptive parents was not as perfect as it appeared. But she’s coping with her childhood trauma as best she can as well as making a life with Charlie, who is 17 years her senior. The tiny details of their domestic bubble in East London – the chilly pine floor, humdrum contents of the fridge and unwashed plates after a boozy night – form a picture of a marriage that rings true. It also makes the ensuing horror feel genuinely threatening.
The least original element is the italicised chapter that appears every so often from the point of view of the unidentified, psychopathic antagonist. But while this technique has been used many times, it actually works here by adding an unhinged commentary on the characters in Josie’s life. When the attacker turns his attention to her parents in Gloucestershire, Josie has to confront the pain of her childhood. She also has to deal with the return of her birth mother in her life, while the age gap with her husband becomes more of an issue. Then there’s the new boyfriend of her high-flying lawyer friend: something’s not right about him. As Josie struggles with writer’s block, she starts drinking more and suffers unexplained blackouts.
Rather than surprising you with sudden twists, Reavley is an author who leads you gradually towards what you suspect is going to be a shocking conclusion, but the question is which one? It’s impossible to say too much about The Quiet Ones, as it’s a story with a handful of characters and the climax is clearly going to involve something close to home. It will satisfy readers of domestic noir, though it doesn’t fit into any obvious genre (Josie and Reavley have that in common). With its sense of dread and suspense, perhaps one comparison is the darker fiction of Barbara Vine. There are nods to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds in her previous book, Carrion.
The conclusion of Reavley’s latest novel is an audacious move that does require a certain amount of coincidence in the plot, though she pulls it off. The Quiet Ones is a powerful psychological thriller that pulls you along and then hits you hard and fast with its genuinely disturbing revelations.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars