Written by Alex Walters — Are you ready for a trip to the Highlands? Because bodies have started appearing on the Black Isle and it sounds like a creepy place. The peninsula between the Moray, Beauly and Cromarty Firths, actually isn’t an island at all, but what’s going down there is plenty black in Alex Walters’ latest novel.
The action begins further south, in Manchester. Katy Scott works in a bar and is waiting for her cab home. It’s raining. A van pulls up and she recognises the driver, who insists on offering her a lift. Pretty soon a swab soaked in chloroform is over her mouth and it’s lights out for Katy.
Meanwhile, up on the Black Isle, DI Alec McKay remains consternated by the disappearance of a young woman called Lizzie Hamilton. One minute she was working in a dingy pub in Rosemarkie, the next she was gone. Her father was neither helpful nor upset when she disappeared, and even after a year that’s stuck with McKay. Pushed for resources, they closed the file assuming Lizzie Hamilton had moved elsewhere. Yet it reminds him of his own daughter, also called Lizzie, who died after moving to London.
Then a body is discovered by Greg and Kelly, two teenagers due to go to university soon, who are out for a bit of late summer lovin’ at a wilderness spot called Clootie Well. Ancient Celtic superstition is attached to the place, and it really spooks them when, in between the thorn bushes, they find a makeshift grave with candles and vases of flowers positioned around it. The grave is both fresh and shallow. Soon McKay and his DS, Ginny Horton, are on the scene and they establish that the unidentified female died of asphyxiation.
While the cops on the Black Isle try to work out who she is, we’re taken off to Manchester again where another young woman called Jo is sitting in a pub. She’s squirming from the clutches of a rather boring builder called Dave (or Pete, because it’s one of those nights) while her friend Jade is becoming more than acquainted with another drunk builder. Jo makes her escape and instead of taking the train home, is offered a lift by someone in a van. You can guess the rest.
Candles and Roses is written in a direct and easy to read style, and Walters introduces a variety of characters in his police procedural. McKay’s an impatient and irritable detective, and his forthright manner is softened by Horton’s more thoughtful approach. His daughter’s death and what it’s done to his marriage isn’t just driving him to solve the case, it gives him a harsh attitude towards some of the suspects. Each of the missing women wasn’t much wanted by their parents and he thinks they all may have been abused. This seems to be the only thing linking them.
In a delightful little sub-plot, the teenager Kelly starts to do some sleuthing of her own. She’s linked the disappearance of Lizzie Hamilton with the body at Clootie Well and decides to get a job where Lizzie worked to find out more. She is hired by the pub’s lecherous landlord, Denny Gorman, who drinks himself to oblivion daily and becomes a real handful when she mentions Lizzie.
What’s not so well developed in the story is the significance of the candles and roses, which are also found at the subsequent crime scenes. Yes, we have a serial killer on our hands. And yes, these seem to be strange clues. But the book might have been a whole lot more intriguing and creepy if more were made of the ritual aspects of the burials. Who doesn’t love a bit of horror?
On the other hand, it means Candles and Roses is accessible to those who don’t like gory details. As McKay’s personal problems mount alongside the pressures of the case, he becomes a more sympathetic character and there’s a double twist in the tail that might just have you flicking back to earlier chapters to make sure you haven’t made some wrong assumptions along the way. Alex Walters leaves some heavily and not so heavily disguised clues here and there for mystery lovers to enjoy.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars