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Thursday 15 February 2018

‘The Devil's Claw’ by Lara Dearman

Published by Trapeze,
30 November 2017.
ISBN: 978-1-4091-7028-0 (PB)

Shetland and Lewis have long harboured more criminals in fiction than many large towns do in reality; and now Lara Dearman is set fair to put Guernsey on the map in the same way. All are islands small and remote enough to turn a murder mystery into a country house style story, with the number of suspects limited by the location.

Throughout The Devil's Claw, the author's affinity with her birthplace shines like a beacon. A serial killer in such a quiet, picturesque vicinity stretches credulity more than a little, but this promising debut evokes the slightly claustrophobic small-town atmosphere which pervades the island and draws the reader in to such an extent that it's easy to suspend disbelief.

It's part police procedural, part accidental sleuth. Jennifer Dorey is a journalist, back on her native island after a traumatic experience on 'the mainland', and soon fighting a battle with her editor who seems to be blocking her attempts to investigate an unexplained death. She encounters DCI Michael Gilbert, who is nearing retirement and carrying plenty of baggage of his own; they pool their resources, and soon find there's far more going on than one apparently drowned body washed up on one of Guernsey's many beaches.

Guernsey is a hotbed of myths and mysteries, and Dearman puts her knowledge of them to good use. The island is also not as picture-perfect as it seems; even without the murder mystery element, there's a dark side encompassing old resentments, more modern horrors like child abuse and drugs, and the kind of mischief which grows out of poverty and boredom. All this is threaded through the narrative, building a picture of a place in which crime is as credible as in any inner city.

The characters, too, are rounded and real. Both protagonists have demons from the past, and Michael also meets conflict from fellow officers who prefer an easier life; the supporting cast members too are three-dimensional. A series of short chapters from the point of view of the murderer interleave the present-day story, and more power to Lara Dearman for her skilful use of misdirection; though the relatively short list of suspects soon reveals itself in the present-day chapters, there's no indication until close to the end which of them is actually the guilty party.

The two protagonists' backstories are left hanging, deliberately I hope, to provide an opportunity for a follow-up and possibly even a series. And with such a beautiful location as background, I shouldn't be surprised if a TV company comes knocking.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Lara Dearman was born and raised on the beautiful Channel Island of Guernsey. She moved to the UK to study International Relations and French at the University of Sussex, after which she endured a brief career in finance before giving it up to be a stay at home mum to her three children. A short course in Creative Writing at Richmond Adult Community College led to Lara studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at St Mary’s University, London. She graduated in 2016 with a distinction. Having moved from Guernsey to Brighton to London to Paris to Singapore and back to London over the last fifteen years, she has now settled in Westchester, New York, with her family. The Devil's Claw is her first novel and combines her love of Guernsey, myths and folklore with her obsession with crime fiction and serial killers...

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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