Written by Sharon Bolton — Standalone novels. Some you can take or leave, while others make a lasting impression. Then there’s a third, little populated, category which contains those books that knock you for six from the get-go and keep on surprising to the very end. There, I’ve just described Dead Woman Walking.
In a remote area near the Scottish border, a man is in pursuit of a young woman. When he catches her, she meets a swift and violent end. Job done and nobody is any the wiser. But…
Up above, a multicoloured hot air balloon is on an early morning pleasure trip, with 12 excited passengers and an experienced pilot on board. A lovely way to begin the day, and a special treat for sisters Jessica and Bella, to celebrate Bella’s birthday. Everyone is in high spirits until the passengers spot the drama unfolding below them. Suddenly, what began as a pleasant morning out has turned into something much more sinister.
A shot is fired, to deadly effect, and those remaining in the now pilotless balloon must battle for their survival. It’s a fight that can only end one way, but miraculously Jessica survives. She saw the murder, and the murderer’s face. Unfortunately, the murderer saw her face too and now he’s out to get her. Can Jessica stay alive long enough to tell her story?
What follows is a heart-stopping, catch-your-breath pursuit which sees a concussed Jessica trying her hardest to stay one step ahead of the game. But why doesn’t she just go to the police? The deeper into this book you get, the more questions arise and the greater is your need to read, read, read. The short, staccato chapter structure will lull you into a false sense of security, to the extent that the passage of time becomes immaterial… just one more page, then I’ll sleep – oops, is it really 1am already?
Jessica and Patrick, the man who is pursuing her, are both compellingly drawn and enigmatic enough to keep us guessing – yes, be warned, because sneaky Sharon Bolton has a fair few surprises up her sleeve before this tale reaches its dramatic denouement. In 2014, I had Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide (one of the Lacey Flint series of novels) in my top five books of the year. Set in London, it has an overwhelming sense of place which puts you deep in the heart of the action. Dead Woman Walking does exactly the same thing, although the setting itself couldn’t be more different. The rugged, wild and untamed landscapes of Northumberland have a hugely important part to play here and they’re lovingly drawn and sharp as a tack.
This is a book that goes from zero to 60 in no time at all. The drama unfolds at breakneck speed, and the scenes in the balloon as the passengers battle to save themselves are almost cinematic in their clarity and sense of undiluted drama. The plotting is meticulous and very clever, and the addition of a group of Catholic nuns adds a surprising touch of light-heartedness to a book that revels in ratcheting up the tension. No spoilers, but think CSI meets Sister Act. It also features a character with one of the best names I’ve seen for a long time – Supt Ajax Maldonado – a multi-layered creation who has a pivotal role to play as the police try to piece together what made the balloon crash,
It’s a bit early to be deciding on my top five books for 2017, but Dead Woman Walking is already a contender. It may put you off balloon rides for life, but it is a book destined to fly high.
Dead Woman Walking is released on 20 April. You can order a copy here.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars