Written by Sarah Ward — Immersive theatre is a thing these days. For the uninitiated, it’s where you arrive at a show and get drawn into the work hook, line and sinker. As soon as you step over the threshold you are a spectator no more. Instead you become part of the performance. Sarah Ward’s The Shrouded Path is a fine example of the literary version – this is an immersive novel, no less!
Whether you’ve ever been to the Derbyshire Peaks or not, this book takes you there, right down to the damp, misty mornings and twisty country roads. It’s an area steeped in tradition, superstition and small town suspicion, and all three come into play in a story that seeps through the pores, into your very heart and soul.
The Shrouded Path is the fourth in the series featuring DC Connie Childs and as with some of the previous novels in the series the story has its origins in the past. This time, we go back to November, 1957. A Bampton Secondary Modern schoolgirl is ignoring her parents’ warnings and taking the shortcut home from choir practice. But Susan’s cheerful humming of The Twelve Days of Christmas comes to an abrupt halt when she spots six girls from rival Bampton Grammar school entering a disused railway tunnel known locally as The Cutting. Six go in, but only five come out and as Susan hurries home in the mist she little realises that what she just witnessed is to have repercussions 50 years later…
Fast-forward to the latter days of October 2017, and DC Childs is looking at the circumstances of a sudden death. The victim was elderly and in poor health, so just a case of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, but Childs’ boss DI Sadler is on leave so she has by-the-book stand-in DI Matthews on her case and is going over the details for the final time.
Sadler has lied about going away for a break. He’s at home, has time on his hands and jumps at the chance of a meal with a neighbour – but another man is there too, and what he has to say shows the sudden death in a whole new light. Back at the station, Childs is begrudgingly about to take on babysitting duties of the team’s newest member Peter Dahl, a DS from Glossop, but there’s no simple easing-in for this fledgling partnership. What Sadler reveals to them means Childs and Dahl are now looking into two sudden deaths, and the deeper they dig the more complicated their investigation gets.
Meanwhile, Mina Kemp is struggling to cope. Her mother, Hilary is seriously ill in hospital with little chance of getting better and Mina is juggling the stress of visiting her failing parent with running her landscape gardening business. Hilary is failing fast and at times seems to be hallucinating, so when she says she’s had a visitor, Mina takes it with a pinch of salt. But Hilary is insistent that Valerie came to call. Mina sets out to find the mysterious visitor – a decision she may well live to regret.
The sins of the past are a potent force in a story which deftly combines a sense of history with the minutiae of modern-day police work. Upon Sadler’s return the team clicks into gear and the real work begins, with every member of the team playing their part. Which is where it gets a little confusing – the book is flagged as a DC Childs mystery, but Connie doesn’t really stand out as the narrative unfolds. Also, as a newbie to the series I felt a little left out of the character’s back story.
Notwithstanding those minor quibbles, The Shrouded Path is a finely plotted tale which will keep you glued to the pages well into the early hours. There are clever twists, well rounded characters and sumptuously rendered settings, with Ward toying with your emotions like a puppet master pulling strings. Generally it’s no issue if, like me, you leap into the series at this point but DC Childs’ previous outings – In Bitter Chill, A Deadly Thaw and A Patient Fury have all now joined the TBR list.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 4 Stars