Gytha Lodge’s debut novel flips effortlessly between past and present. She takes us back to a humid summer night thirty-six years ago. It is 1983, and six teenage school friends hike into the forest for a night of drinking and drug-taking around the campfire, and then perhaps some furtive sex further away in the shadows. At the last minute, a seventh, younger girl is allowed to join them; Aurora, baby sister of one of the group. It will be her last night alive.Stories told in flashback can be confusing, even irritating. But Lodge pulls it off beautifully. Take this nicely-judged set-up of the link between present and past from the opening chapter.
‘Who found the remains?’
The sergeant answered. ‘A GP out camping with his family.’
He let the sergeant lead the way, though he knew where they were going. It was where seven kids had bedded down thirty years ago, but only six of them had got up in the morning.
Economical, terse, and you know exactly where you are. A body, long undetected (‘remains’) and a detective old enough to remember an unsolved cold case on his patch. Everything unfolds neatly and logically from this point.
Lodge writes about teenage hero-worship vividly and with insight. Aurora – beautiful, clever, but out of her depth in the company of older, more experienced teenagers – is grateful and thrilled to be allowed to tag along with her older sister. She is dazzled by the group’s self-confidence, assuredness, and sexual glamour. So dazzled, she cannot see the danger lurking in the forest as the sun sets and the shadows lengthen. Poor Aurora’s fate is sealed.
DCI Jonah Sheens knows exactly what awaits him after he takes a call on his mobile halfway through a bike ride. He’s told to ‘attend the scene of a possible homicide’.
‘Where?’ he asks, irritably. (It’s his day off).
DCI Sheens can barely speak. Thirty-year old memories rush through his mind. ‘Recent remains?’ he manages eventually, although he knows the answer.
Indeed they are not. The dessicated body parts of a once-beautiful young girl have been stumbled upon by a family camping in Brinken Wood, which as a young constable Jonah Sheens once helped search, without success, for the missing Aurora Jackson. She vanished during a louche night-time camping trip in the forest.
Her sister and the rest of the group have always maintained their complete innocence and ignorance of what happened to Aurora. Yet DCI Sheens’s investigation soon establishes that the body was buried in secret hideaway that only the six friends knew about.
This is a really superior crime story with a complex and richly satisfying plot. All the characters are properly fleshed out, and sweet Aurora’s doomed innocence will break your heart. DCI Sheens is tremendously likeable and his underlying guilt at being part of a failed investigation thirty years earlier spurs him on to crack the case now.
Gytha Lodge is one to watch.