The Birthday Girl by Sarah Ward

3 Mins read
The Birthday Girl by Sarah Ward front cover

Thanks to writers like Sarah Ward, Wales is finally making its mark in crime fiction as a principality distinct from England. Welsh locations from north to south are appearing in novels by Clare Mackintosh, Simon McCleave, Harry Bingham and many more, and there are top TV shows like Hidden, Hinterland and Keeping Faith. From historical to action to psychological thrillers, Wales has become a sexy setting.

Sarah Ward’s particular niche is dark, moody murder mysteries with a gothic tinge to them. The Birthday Girl is set on the tiny fictional island of Eldey, off the coast of West Wales and visible from the popular tourist town of Tenby. This story is in the best Agatha Christie tradition, reminiscent of and in homage to And Then There Were None. It’s a closed circle mystery, where a group of people are trapped in an inescapable location with a killer on the loose. Eldey can only be reached by boat, it has a small, exclusive hotel and an old disused chapel. There’s no WiFi or telephone network. When the weather is playing up the island is cut off – a perfect setting for murder.

The prologue introduces us to Bryony, notorious as The Birthday Girl, a child killer in both senses of the term. At her 11th birthday party, Bryony poisoned her friends, committing a crime that shocked the nation. After years of incarceration she has finally been released but because she was tried as a child, Bryony has been assigned a new identity and guaranteed anonymity. When she packs for her holiday on Eldey, included in her luggage are the chemicals she uses to make her poisons. Bryony is planning revenge.

She may have shed the name Bryony, but she is no less obsessed with poisoning. Plans in place, she makes the trip to Pembrokeshire. Eldey has its own mysterious and tragic past, and for Bryony that makes it a fitting place for her murderous intent.

Meanwhile, Mallory Dawson has nearly recovered from the injuries she sustained in an attack during a prison transport but is left with a permanent limp. The ex-cop was forced her take medical retirement from the Metropolitan Police in London. When Mallory hears about a job on Eldey it sounds perfect for a quiet life and to aid her emotional recovery.

Seeing the island, she falls in love with the place. The vacancy is for a night manager at the Cloister Hotel for the last few months of the season before the hotel closes for the winter. Visible from the mainland, it has a good reputation with the locals who know it as Greentiles. It was built in the 1920s by the island’s first nun, Margaret Taylor, who set up her own order. It’s a plush, if now fading, building. Taylor liked her creature comforts.

Over the decade after it was built, more women joined the Companions of the Good Shepherd. Then tragedy struck. Bridget Marsh was the last nun to join the sisters but, being under 21, then the age of majority, her rich family refused her permission to stay with the order. Before she could return home, Bridget died – poisoned by eating berries. Was it an accident, suicide or murder?

In the present, hotel manager Alex gives Mallory the job and lets her stay in the attached lodge onsite. It’s not long before Mallory meets the guests, including Mona Rubin, a free spirited artist who likes to paint in her room. Charlotte Vass and her husband, Noah, have travelled from London – while Charlotte was hoping for a romantic break, Noah has brought his awkward teenage daughter Julia along. Beth Gregory, with her husband Scott and their toddler Edith, is annoyed that this doesn’t really seem like a very child-friendly place, despite the brochure boast to the contrary. Beth takes herself to the sauna for a pamper, where she bumps into a tall handsome Viking, Noah. They are all hiding something but one of the three women is the serial killer, Bryony.

Alys, the housekeeper suddenly gets sick and dies. Unbeknownst to the others Bryony’s plan has begun, with a little fun before the main event. Mallory’s training kicks in and she handles things until the police turn up. DI Harri Evans opens the investigation into the death, as yet not known to be suspicious, but before anything can be established the weather closes in and the island is cut off from the mainland. Mallory realises there’s a killer on the loose and that more people will die if she doesn’t act. The responsibility of investigating falls on her. Can she find Bryony before she herself becomes a victim of an obsessive but clever murderer?

This is a slow burn read, as establishing the characters and relationships is important before the clues and the guessing game of who the killer is begins. The murders are entertaining in a macabre way and the claustrophobic sense of foreboding is well realised.

The Birthday Girl offers a well crafted and vaguely spooky mystery that makes great use of the location and setting, and you’ll find it easy to like the protagonist, Mallory. The ending is tense and satisfying. This is the first Mallory Dawson Mystery and we imagine there will be many opportunities for her to work as a consultant with the police in future, should the need arise.

Sarah Ward’s debut was In Bitter Chill, set in the Peak District of Derbyshire, released in 2015. We interviewed the author here.

Canelo Books

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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