Has Anyone Seen Charlotte Salter? by Nicci French

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Has Anyone Seen Charlotte Salter by Nicci French front cover

Ah, that well worn crime fiction trope, the dual timeline! What fun it is to skip back and forth across the decades, trying to keep the multiple story paths on point in an increasingly frazzled brain! Is it any wonder my heart sank upon seeing the words “30 years ago” in the preface to this book?

But this is Nicci French we’re talking about, a husband and wife team who’ve earned their crime writing chops with the Frieda Klein series and numerous standalone novels. So rest easy, fellow readers – they’ve got us covered. Has Anyone Seen Charlotte Salter? begins as billed – 30 years ago. It’s just before Christmas in 1990, and in an East Anglian village last-minute preparations are under way for a 50th birthday party.

The do is for Alec Salter and has been organised by his wife Charlotte, but as the couple’s four children, Elizabeth – better known as Etty, Niall, Paul and Ollie arrive, there is no sign of their mother. Which is strange, because she’s put the whole thing together. Etty in particular is worried, but as the party warms up everyone else appears to be having a good time, Charlotte or no Charlotte.

Etty’s call to the police that night is all but dismissed, but when Charlotte hasn’t made an appearance by the following day the alarm bells begin to ring… albeit faintly. Maybe she has run away from her husband, or gone to spend time with her boyfriend? After all, her husband doesn’t seem too worried. Etty dismisses all the speculation – she knows her mother would never have left them without warning – and when Charlotte’s coat is found, crumpled and muddied by the riverside, the police reluctantly begin a half-hearted investigation.

Then the body of Duncan Ackerley is found in the same river on Christmas Day. He was a friend of the Salter family – did he kill himself after killing Charlotte? The lives of two families’ are shattered as the police flounder in the dual investigation, making wild assumptions and foolish missteps and never reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

Now it’s time to move on three decades – no bobbing and weaving here, just a straight transition to the present day, where Duncan Ackerley’s two sons start a true crime podcast in the hopes of finally getting to the bottom of what actually happened back then. The younger son, Morgan, is now well known as a TV personality, so the podcast begins to make waves – not least with the three surviving Salter siblings back home to clear the old house before their father, who is now suffering from dementia, moves into a nursing home.

Etty doesn’t want to rake over the past. There are too many unhappy memories. Her mother’s body was never found and her brother, Paul, committed suicide in the intervening years. But the Ackerley boys persist, and after another tragedy occurs in Glensted village the cold case is reluctantly opened by the local police force. They ballsed up the investigation the first time, so why should things be any different this time? Cue part three, as a new broom is brought in, in the shape of DI Maud O’Connor from London’s Metropolitan Police. It’s a political appointment from the top brass and they clearly expect O’Connor to fail. Luckily, she has other ideas.

Rather than interweaving the narratives, the authors sensibly split this book into three and the ploy works really well, giving the storytelling a nicely metered ebb and flow and deftly developing the characters along the way. Family, with its close ties, shared secrets and stifling familiarity, is at the very heart of everything that happens here. Even DI O’Connor’s domestic issues threaten to cloud her judgement at times.

The early sections of Has Anyone Seen Charlotte Salter? may appear of their time, with the blanket dismissal of females – whether they be teenage girls worried about a missing parent, or PCs assigned to tea-making duties, their input into any investigation sidelined as ‘girly nonsense’ – particularly jarring to read in these more enlightened times. Or are they? As we follow Maud O’Connor’s progress in the case, it’s obvious that things really haven’t changed all that much. She’s a very special character though and I’d love to see her featuring in more Nicci French books.

The location is a small and tightly knit community, which always works well in a crime novel and acts as a dark and vaguely menacing backdrop to everything that transpires. Alongside the two sets of siblings are a small but well defined cast of supporting characters who all have a part to play here. Sometimes they conspire to pull the reader off the beaten track and into a neatly disguised dead end. Well done, team French!

This is an engrossing, almost immersive read that tempted me to keep on reading well past my bedtime. In short, it is Nicci French at their very best – grab a copy right away!

Also see the excellent Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey.

Simon & Schuster

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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