Sarah Hilary can be a confrontational writer. Her first novel Someone Else’s Skin (2014) paused only to recount the life-scarring events that befall Marnie Rome (then a DS) and which will pursue her through all of her subsequent cases, before dropping us straight into the charged atmosphere of a hard-pressed women’s refuge, just as it explodes.
In her new book, it’s a riot in a chaotic, over-crowded prison that first gets the benefit of her often hard-edged prose. Mickey Vokey, seen first through the eyes of his cellmate Ted Elms, is a violent prisoner, “a sadist who had tortured a young mother” who, we are told later, has escaped leaving “too many broken faces, blind eyes…too much blood”. Elms is only too glad to see him gone. And, with “madman” Vokey now on the outside, no inmates are talking.
DS Noah Jake and DI Marnie Rome are the investigating officers. “She’s so serious it makes my teeth ache” remarks Ted Elms. For many reasons we discover, not least that one of the prison casualties is Stephen Keele, the adoptee responsible for her parent’s deaths. Then an early break gives the team Vokey’s ex-residence in West Ealing, and a bedroom lined with “faces… old and young, male and female…hundreds and hundreds”, a proclivity augmented by his surprising artistic gift and mirrored in his prison cell. Some are derived from fan mail he has received from women writing to him from the outside world: “the ones who like us just the way we are” remarks an inmate. Other victims perhaps, a previous victim — or possible future prey? And might one such correspondent be hiding him?
Far from a cosy read then. Marnie Rome and Noah Jake’s riveting investigation both within the poisoned atmosphere of the prison and outside, will explore all of these avenues and more besides, each encounter marked by intense interrogations notable for precise revealing observation (chairs standing “as if guests were expected but unwelcome”) that always contributes to our sense of the scene or of the character (“old money…less of it now than there once was”), spot-on dialogue, Noah alert to the unguarded comment. It’s a twisting, tightly coiled narrative that still manages to leave behind a series of often poignant vignettes of the women in Vokey’s life.
Filling out the picture and available (brilliantly) only to the reader, but not to Marnie or Jake, are the irregular ruminations of Ted Elms, on life support after Vokey’s prison breakout, his extreme pain alleviated by doses of morphine. His enlightening revelations (reliable/unreliable?) will shift our picture of Vokey this way and that, whilst contributing to the rising tension of the story. Nor, as the book speeds to its bleak and moving conclusion, are Marnie’s and Jake’s individual demons left unexplored.
Sarah Hilary is a new discovery for me (thank you Headline) – and what a joy it is to encounter such psychologically astute crime fiction that does not recoil from the hard realities of modern Britain. She is on record as opposing the recently mooted award for thrillers that avoid themes of violence against women. She would rather see “an award which celebrates the sensitive, compassionate and intelligent treatment” of such themes. Hear, hear! Step forward Sarah Hilary, an exemplar of that too rarely achieved ideal.
Come and Find Me by Sarah Hilary is published by Headline