In the first of the Burrowhead Mysteries, an atmospheric murder investigation unearths the brutal history of a village where no one is innocent.
When psychotherapist Alexis Cosse is found murdered in the playground of the sleepy northern village of Burrowhead, DI Strachan and her team of local police investigate, exposing a maelstrom of racism, misogyny, abuse and homophobia that has been simmering beneath the surface of the village.
Shaken by the revelations and beginning to doubt her relationship with her husband, DI Strachan discovers something lurking in the history of Burrowhead, while someone (or something) equally threatening is hiding in the strange and haunted cave beneath the cliffs…
When The Dead Come Calling, Helen Sedgwick’s first foray into crime fiction, blends the atmospheric and haunting writing found in her previous novels with the conventions of the classic police procedural. The result is an unusual but engrossing literary mystery that speaks to contemporary issues of racism, xenophobia and the fear of the unknown.
Set in the sleepy northern village of Burrowhead, the novel opens with the discovery of the body of psychologist Alexis Cosse. Alexis, a Greek national who had recently been given his leave to remain in the UK, had been in a relationship with PC Simon Hunter, one of Burrowhead’s small police force. Tasked with solving the murder, Simon’s boss, DI Georgie Strachen, is struck by the brutality of the apparently motiveless killing. Who would want to harm Alexis enough to kill him? But when a racist note is discovered in Alexis’ flat, and a second body is found, it becomes apparent that a brutal history lies beneath Burrowhead’s apparently calm surface.
Switching perspectives between Georgie, her DS on the case Trish, PC Simon Hunter, Georgie’s amateur archaeologist husband Fergus, and members of the village community, When The Dead Come Calling is a slow-burning novel that takes its time to establish a keen sense of place and people. Gradually layering up each perspective, the novel is initially ambiguous as each character appears to have an ulterior motive or hidden agenda. This nebulousness may grate with readers who prefer their crime fiction hard-hitting and fast-paced but I found the style compelling, as each page revealed just a slither more of the picture Sedgwick so effectively paints.
The novel touches on some very contemporary themes, casting a lens onto an apparently quiet and docile community divided by poverty and simmering with undercurrents of racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Sedgwick does an excellent job of addressing the root causes behind the headlines we so often see in the papers, creating characters and situations that, if not sympathetic, are poignantly and worryingly real. It makes for very uncomfortable reading at times as Sedgwick refuses to tear her gaze away from the faultlines that divide supposedly welcoming communities, and tear neighbours, families, friends, and even lovers, asunder.
I wasn’t quite as engaged with the sub-plot involving Georgie’s personal doubts about her marriage to her husband Fergus. Whilst Georgie’s unease in her previously comfortable marriage mirrors the discomfort she begins to feel amongst the residents of Burrowhead, furthering her sense of otherness, this aspect of the book didn’t quite resonate with me and Fergus’ chapters sometimes felt as if they were jarring me away from the pull of the main plot. This, however, may well be a personal preference. Fergus is a whimsical dreamer of a character – and he was so brilliantly portrayed on the page, that his selfish obliviousness really raised my hackles!
A mention must also go to atmospheric writing. Sedgwick creates a real sense of place, portraying Burrowhead as a desolate and isolated community clinging onto the cliff edge in a ragged post-industrial landscape. The supernatural undercurrents, a series of shifting links to both the village’s Celtic past and recent tragic history, serve to underscore this, creating an powerfully haunting atmosphere that permeates the page.
When The Dead Come Calling isn’t your usual police procedural. If you like to keep your police procedurals pacy, this might not be the book for you. But if you’re open to reading a compelling and atmospheric mystery that unravels at a saunter not a gallop, you’ll find a well plotted contemporary crime novel that rewards patient and considered reading with beautiful writing, well-rounded characters and an twisty, unsettling payoff at the end.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for organising and inviting me to take part in this blog tour. The tour continues until 17 January so do check out the other stops along the way for more reviews and content!