Long time followers of this blog will recall me reviewing Dandy Gilver And The Case Of Red Herrings, which, to my surprise, I totally adored. This book’s by the same author, but is a very different beast – for starters, it’s set in the present day, and rather than being a “cosy”, like the Dandy Gilver series, it’s a psychological novel-cum-thriller (the word thriller to me suggests guns; car chases; stuff like that, and that’s not what this book’s about – it’s a thriller about the dark recesses of the mind…so just my cup of tea! )
Jessie is our main character and heroine, telling the story from a distinctive and amusing first person narrative. She works in Dumfries, a large town in the south of Scotland, in a church-run charity which gives clothing to those in need. It’s not a charity shop; items are free, but you have to be referred by Social Work, a church, a homeless charity, etc. Jessie’s the only paid staff member, and the boss. The other two are volunteers: Dot, who’s a wee bit older, gets paperwork – and a lot of other things – mixed up easily, but is kind, and easy company. And Steve (“who’s taken every Social Science course the Open University ever invented”) and tells the women off for being inappropriate or unprofessional at any opportunity – while he “nicks the stock if he sees anything he fancies.” Meanwhile, Jessie has a closely guarded secret – she suffers from chronic pterenophobia (brownie points if you know what it is without Googling it, although the story does get to it!) It’s fear of feathers, which, on first consideration, doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Just stay away from birds, hens, etc. Simple. But they also pop up in mattresses, and of course in quilts and pillows…Or on beaches. And in lots of films…
Jessie’s a sympathetic character. She’s lonely, and more than a little naive. All she wants is a happy family: a nice husband, a couple of kids, a place to call home with them. Her own childhood was horrendous: she was brought up in a highly-religious household, and the scriptures were drummed into her, to the extent that she still knows them all. However, she now has a new, highly amusing spin on the Bible… There was corporal punishment, but it went way beyond what was acceptable in the 70s, and was closely tied to the religious fervour that gripped Jessie’s mother – and which eventually drove Mr Constable away, although for propriety’s sake, Mrs Constable pretends to be a widow.
On her way back from work one day, Jessie pops into M&S Food Hall. In there, she sees a man she knows she’s seen on four occasions in town (so he obviously made an impression!) “When I recognised him, my throat got a sudden lump in it, like the thing people call their heart leaping. It’s hard to say why. I mean, he’s tall and broad, but he’s got that kind of sandpapery skin that sometimes goes with red hair. Except not as bad as that sounds.” (It sounds pretty bad to me, but hey, different strokes…) Yet he doesn’t appear to recognise her at all.
This guy’s obviously having a bad day. He’s arguing on the phone to a “Becky”: “Becky, for Christ’s sake.”; “Its not forever, Becks. It’ll stop again.” When Jessie comes round the aisle, he’s sitting, slumped, on a low shelf, head-in-hands. Being an inveterate interferer, Jessie stops to check he’s ok, and he tells her, “She’s gone…She’s left me…My wife.” He’s smashed his phone, is in a terrible state, and so Jessie, ever the Good Samaritan, offers to finish off his shopping, then drive him home.
It turns out, though, that home is not in town – where there’s high drama, with a big police operation involving divers searching the River Nith – or anywhere near. It’s out in the Galloway countryside – “Can’t fling a stick without hitting an artist’s studio, or a cheese-makers’ commune, or a stone barn that’s been turned into a theatre” is Jessie’s take on the area. By the time they arrive at the seaside cottage, they’ve been driving for 50 minutes – lot longer than you expect any helpful bystander to drive you home. And they’re in his car, so Jessie’s basically stuck in the middle of nowhere. Plus, there’s a surprise waiting for them at Stockman’s Cottage. Becky’s car is missing – perhaps she has left. But the real surprise is inside – 2-year-old Dillon, left on his own, with a filthy nappy. “She left him…She locked him in and left him…How long?” asks his dad.
Looking round the untidy, but cosy, bedroom, Jessie spots a note, propped up so it’s easily seen, “I’m sorry. I can’t go through it again. I can’t go on.”
He calls the police, but only at Jessie’s urging – and finally introduces himself to her, as Gus King. He gives the details of Becky’s car, mentions the note, and gives his address. Once off the phone, he fills Jessie in on Becky’s note’s meaning – she’d suffered from severe post-natal depression with both children, worse each time, and that morning found out she was pregnant again. Hence the, “can’t go through it again” bit. As he starts preparing something for the kids to eat, the police arrive. “I phoned Castle Douglas,” said Gus. “How did you get here so fast?” In the kitchen, Jessie “felt it right through my feet and up to my teeth when Gus King heard the news and hit the floor.”
Becky had driven her car right off a cliff into a body of water, in a presumed suicide attempt. The cop see the suicide note, they ask Gus to accompany them, and Jessie is left alone with Ruby and Dillon. When he returns, with the police, the cops make it clear that Jessie should stay in the meantime to take care of the family. So she’s stuck, in Nowheresville, looking after the kids of a man she only knows by sight.
Jessie does her best, looking after the children, although she’s not used to it. She also comforts the bereaved husband – yes, you guessed it, like that. They get into a routine. She uses his car to get in and out to work, and on her days off he deals with all the officialdom a death brings. Very soon, Jessie is imagining a “happy ever after” with her own ready-made family. She quickly falls in love with the kids – but Gus is odd. He twists things she says, making it sound like she suggested something, when in fact he did, then gets narky when she doesn’t acquiesce – mind games, leaving Jessie doubting herself. He also claims to be a “sculptor”, describing previous works of art that had sold for a lot of money. He shows her one piece, but keeps his “studio” locked, and warns her that no-one is allowed in. There’s also the mystery of a Polish man who keeps appearing, desperately trying to ask Jessie about something, but his English is so bad she can’t understand him. However, his fear of Gus needs no translation. Becky’s best friend Ros, a Polish girl, has also disappeared – gone home, says Gus. No way, says the Polish guy. Steve has a different view – he thinks Becky may have killed herself as Ros was her lover, and left. “Practically everybody was gay in Steve’s world, but nobody was just getting on with it. Everyone was sublimating and repressing and suffering. Everyone from Billy Bunter to Jimmie Krankie. Anne of Green Gables and Henry the Eighth. Everyone you could think of – except, of course, Steve, who was just interested in the subject in an objective way. And was single. And hung out with a load of women in a clothes shop all day” – it’s passages like these that make Jessie so witty and likeable. But oh dear, so gullible…
It’s clear to anyone reading this book that Gus is dodgy. But to what extent? Is Jessie just a convenient babysitter-cum-sexual partner, or is he planning on being with her for the long haul? Or something else? Are these odd arguments about who said what when, and the flashes of temper she thinks she sometimes sees in his eyes, just one of his quirks? Or, as she sometimes senses, is there something much darker about Gus?
Well, I’m giving no clues about the depths of Gus’s “oddness”; that’s for other readers to find out…but I’ll just say it’s pretty damn deep, and will keep you turning pages to find out just what he’s done, and what he has planned next. Jessie, however, is a joy of a character – original, spirited, very very funny, and refusing to let the crappy hand life’s dealt her beat her down. Catriona McPherson is fantastic at writing the Scottish female working class voice – her only rival, that I’ve read, is Denise Mina. This book reminded me slightly of a modern version of a Margaret Millar -so you’ll know that, psychologically, you’re in for a treat. Do investigate Catriona McPherson – in my humble opinion, she’s criminally under-rated and deserves to be a lot better known!
Huge thanks to Midnight Ink Books for giving me a copy of The Day She Died to read and review, in exchange for my honest opinion. I should also mention this book was nominated for Best Paperback Original in the 2015 Edgar Awards.
So do you fancy giving The Day She Died, or any other Catriona McPherson books a go? And who would you say are your favourite writers of “psychological thrillers”? I know there are a lot of quality candidates out there, so let’s hear who you rate!