Written by Kate Rhodes — Kate Rhodes impressed us back in 2012 with her London-based series featuring psychologist Alice Quentin, but in Hell Bay she opts for a change of scenery and a new cast of characters.
After a traumatic stint in London, DI Benesek (Ben) Kitto takes a sabbatical from work on the tiny Scilly island of Bryher, where he grew up. Less than two miles long and half-a-mile wide, with a tiny population outside the tourist season, the island seems idyllic. But when a 16-year-old girl goes missing and is later found dead, it becomes clear that the attacker must be someone on the island, as a severe storm stopped any ferry crossings. With nods to And Then There Were None and other variations on the cut-off crime scene set-up, this is both an absorbing mystery and a study of a community which is struggling to maintain its traditional lifestyle in the face of modernity.
Ben is roped in to investigate because he has such personal knowledge of this closed community. Not surprisingly, he is reluctant to believe that any of his old friends, relatives and acquaintances could be involved in this sordid tale of jealousy, abuse, smuggling and drug dealing. I cannot say much more without giving away the plot, but suffice to say that practically everyone on the island has something to hide and falls under suspicion.
What makes this story believable and enjoyable is its blend of solid police procedural and psychological probing. You can enjoy the gradual unfolding of the case, the sharing of clues, with patient questioning, testing, exploring of options and no sudden flashes of intuition which the detective hides from readers. At the same time, you gain insight into the confusion of thoughts passing through Ben’s head, as well as the fears of at least one other person on the island – Rose, the mother of the dead girl’s former boyfriend. Rose starts to imagine the worst and finds herself all alone in a seemingly hopeless fight against bullies and blackmailers. There are glimmers of affection and hope and friendship, but overall this is a bleak tale, as comfortless as the early spring weather and hefty winds storming the island which is exposed to everything the Atlantic throws at it.
Of course, Bryher itself takes centre stage in the narrative. The author spent many childhood holidays there and it shows in the loving but unsentimental descriptions of life in a remote location. Holidaymakers may treasure the seclusion, but it has led to an isolated, surly and suspicious community, where everyone knows each other’s business. In the winter months it becomes even more drab and lonely, a place dying on its feet, and its young people cannot wait to escape it. Perhaps it is Kate Rhodes’ poetic ability – she published two volumes of poetry before she turned to novel writing – but she manages to recreate the local atmosphere without guidebook sermons, merely choosing a few telling details about the Isles of Scilly which give us a real sense of how landscape and place shapes character. A promising new location for a rather attractive new detective and the start of a new series. I am sure that in summer, with a large number of tourists, the series will take a very different turn.
Hell Bay is the first mystery we’ve reviewed set on the Isles of Scilly, but previous chilling and thrilling destinations include Lewis, the Shetlands, the Faroes, Oland in Sweden and the Isle of Man.
Simon & Schuster
CFL Rating: 4 Stars