Written by Lucy Atkins — How far would you go to protect your reputation? In the academic world, where issues of plagiarism or biased research methods can make or break a career, the answer is: probably very far indeed. Just think of Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited claim that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and the gallons of ink, follow-up studies and ongoing debate it led to. But can academic rivalry ever lead to murder? This is the issue addressed Lucy Atkins’ third standalone suspense thriller.
Olivia Sweetman’s career is at an all-time high. Historian, university professor, TV presenter; she is about to publish a book that is tipped to become a bestseller. It’s based on a Victorian diary containing a rather sensational confession of murder. The diary was found in a Sussex manor house by the socially gauche and eccentric housekeeper, Vivian. Olivia has had to work closely together with Vivian while writing her book, and perhaps has not given the older lady enough credit for all the background research. Vivian is now pestering Olivia with plans for a new book, but Olivia has no intention of continuing with this difficult relationship. She escapes on holiday to the South of France with her family and friends. However, Vivian is not quite prepared to let her go… Events take a strange and sinister turn, as we get caught in a knotty tangle of ambition, envy, jealousy and spite. Olivia’s life threatens to spin out of control, but is she not partly to blame for her potential downfall?
The unreliable narrator and thwarted relationships will remind you of Notes of a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The descriptions of research – both the Victorian journal as well as fascinating snippets of information about dung beetles – have more in common with AS Byatt’s Possession. There are even hints of a ghostly presence haunting the manor house.
This is a story driven by character and atmosphere rather than plot. It is not a fast-paced narrative and many of the moments of foreshadowing which avid readers of suspense will spot at once are actually red herrings. However, you will be constantly trying to guess which is which. There are beautiful descriptions of Sussex and the French holiday home idyll, but Atkins has a gift for giving even the prettiest backdrop a sinister tinge. The effect relies on careful building of layer upon layer of detail, moving between the present time to that moment just two years ago, when Olivia first got her hands on the diary. Gradually, more is revealed about the complex relationship between these two frankly quite unlikeable women. As we find out more about them, perhaps we can even begin to understand and pity them for their morbid sensitivity and overreactions.
If this sounds like a claustrophobic game being played out between just two key protagonists, fear not. There are plenty of secondary characters with their own parts to play in the drama, nicely observed spats between couples and friends, humorous pokes at the life of someone thrust into the media spotlight. Underneath the accoutrements of middle class comfort, there are serious issues to be addressed about personal and professional integrity. Faced with the temptations of material comfort and fame, readers might well ask themselves if they could honestly claim to be above reproach every step of the way.
Lucy Atkins has previously worked as a journalist and this shows in the ease and fluency with which she tells the story, effortlessly weaving two timelines and multiple locations together. However, the plot itself is not fiendishly complicated and the complex narrative structure being built around it risks overwhelming what is a straightforward storyline. The battle of wits between the two main characters is also in danger of drowning in a wealth of detail about beetles, all-too-vivid nightmares, and Victorian family history.
This is the first book I’ve read by Lucy Atkins, but her two previous releases have also been described as elegantly written slow burners. This author will appeal to fans of Camilla Way’s Watching Edie, or Tammy Cohen or Mary Higgins Clark, whose Christmas-themed offerings we reviewed last year.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars