A creepy village, a missing family and a curious crime journalist – they’re all part of the package in former police detective Caroline Mitchell’s latest domestic thriller.
In January 2011, the Harper family mysteriously disappeared into thin air from their home in the small village of Nighbrook, in the New Forest in the south of England. Despite investigations at the time, no answers were found and the mystery remained unsolved.
Fast-forward 10 years. Crime reporter Naomi Ward is newly married to Ed, a Scottish producer and director 20 years her senior, and overnight she becomes stepmother to his spoilt and insolent teenage daughter, Morgan. Naomi is obsessed with the Harper case and, without giving Ed the whole story, convinces him to buy Ivy Cottage, their former home – much to the dismay of Nighbrook’s inhabitants.
Tearing Morgan away from London and her friends to settle in a godforsaken town where outsiders are clearly unwelcome doesn’t do much for the new mother-daughter relationship. While Ed remains blissfully unaware of Ivy Cottage’s sordid past, Morgan has done her homework and uses her knowledge of Naomi’s ulterior motive as leverage. Morgan’s hatred for Naomi stems from Ed and Naomi’s affair, which began while he was still married to her mother. But Morgan doesn’t know the full story. When Ed’s ex disappears and he goes to find her, Naomi and Morgan are left to face one another in the hostile village.
From the start it’s clear that the villagers have kept secrets from the rest of the world for the past decade. Naomi immediately senses the danger and the ominous nature of the village and its people. Every look and stare seem hostile to her; she feels watched and even the woods hold a sense of menace. We’re led to believe that everyone in this village poses a threat.
The person who ensures Nighbrook’s secret is kept safe and the most antagonistic of all is Lloyd Thomas, the local policeman. Lloyd takes his job as guardian of the town more seriously than his actual job as a policeman. When he’s not lurking around in the forest spying on the Ward family, he’s holding town meetings conspiring with the townsfolk on how to get rid of the outsiders. Given his struggle to control his alcohol addiction and violent past he might not be the best person for the task.
Meanwhile, some chapters take us back 10 years to before the Harpers disappeared and we see a severely dysfunctional family – including their daughter Grace, a sickly girl kept imprisoned by her mother, who forces her to take medication, worsening her condition instead of improving it. We’re also made aware of the concerning relationship between Lloyd and Grace. The family dynamic is complicated further by an absent husband who’s always away for work and a mother who suffered brain damage in a car accident, resulting in amnesia. We are left in the dark as to what went wrong the night the family disappeared. There are certainly plenty of plausible scenarios to assess, but no clear answers.
In present time, a few suspicious events take place. Naomi’s plans to bake for the local coffeeshop owned by Lloyd’s wife are thwarted when customers find maggots in her cake. Naomi is convinced it’s one of Morgan’s nasty pranks seeing as she has previously hidden prawns in Naomi’s clothing. Later Morgan is attacked in the forest by an unknown man when returning home after a nightly visit with Dawn, the vicar’s daughter. This traumatic event brings Morgan and Naomi closer together and their previous animosity fades in the face of helplessness.
The core thread of The Village is the mystery of the Harpers’ disappearance, but the complexity of the family relationships and its impact plays an equally important role. The strained relationship between Naomi and Morgan, Morgan and her mother and even the unsettling relationship between Morgan and her online friend, Taz, add context.
Funnily enough the one person who repeatedly states that she will get to the truth and whose sole purpose of moving to the village is to solve the mystery doesn’t do much in the way of investigating. Naomi is slightly gullible, naive and quite a pushover for a crime journalist. When the mystery is resolved it has little to do with Naomi’s investigative skills – she is just as much in the dark as we, the readers.
It isn’t hard to guess who was involved with the disappearance of the Harper family as the signs and hints are there from the beginning. Fortunately, not everything in The Village is quite as predictable. Towards the end we are served a few zingers and whiplash-inducing twists. The Village is an easy and entertaining read; perfect to ease avid crime readers into the year.
A secretive, remote village is also the setting in Ragnar Jonasson’s The Girl Who Died.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars