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by Paul Torday
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, January 2013
352 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0297867474

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Paul Torday's debut, SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN, established him as a major force in crime writing. This dark, haunting follow-up takes his work to a whole new level. As a description of grief and pain, it's outstanding; as social and political comment it's biting and often borders on real anger. Above all this is a powerful, beautifully written and well-crafted story, with the momentum never allowed to slacken.

I've never believed reviewers who say 'I couldn't put it down', but I read this disquieting and atmospheric psychological thriller in one all-night session. Torday's strengths have always been his strong, utterly realistic characters and his evocative, elegant and tautly measured use of language, again exhibited both in his careful build-up of tension from the very first page to the book's unexpected and powerful conclusion.

For his seventh book he has chosen an uncomfortable subject child abduction. On average a child goes missing every five minutes in Britain. Most run away, many from abusive or inadequate homes. Some are victims. It is impossible not to be revolted by killers such as Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, John Staffen, Ronald Jewson, Ian Huntley, the Soham killer and others like them. Governments try to legislate, endless committees ponder cases and causes, psychiatrists produce theories to feed the gaping maw of what has become a child protection 'industry'.

Norman Stokoe is a product of that industry. An 'expert' in 'strategic overview' he has risen through the ranks without ever meeting a child. When yet another government 'initiative' sees him appointed 'Children's Czar' for the north-east with a posh office and over-generous salary, the perfect committee man believes he has arrived. A reshuffle sees his minister moved, the initiative withers and Stokoe is left in limbo until an ambitious local reporter and his own PA drag him into a nightmare world of death, anguish, deception and political cover-up after three children go missing from a small area and the police decide to treat the cases as runaways.

Stokoe for once cannot sidestep, is forced by his own conscience and his unlikely allies to actually do something and also to reassess his own judgement, self-worth and beliefs.

Running parallel to their investigation, the Geordie forester step-father of one of the missing children tries to cope with the loss of the boy he doted on and the effect it is having on his crumbling relationship. When he starts to 'see things' in the darkness of the man-made wilderness that is the Kielder Forest where he works alone, he believes he is going mad. But is he, or is he being given messages from a world he cannot understand and what was the meaning of the mysterious marks which appeared on the boy's body in life, which the police thought, but could not prove, were caused by abuse but one doctor described as stigmata, the five wounds of Christ crucified?

As dark as the heart of the Kielder, this is a compelling study of anguish, ambition, madness and opportunism, both individual and organisational. It's not an easy read, but holds brutal reminders us of the multiple failings of our society and the hope that there might be something better. It may well leave you shocked and disturbed, but despite that Paul Torday is a supremely gifted and original author who can express those sentiments with vision and clarity.

John Cleal is a former soldier and journalist with an interest in medieval history. He divides his time between France and England.

Reviewed by John Cleal, March 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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