I think to fully appreciate the novels of S.J. Bolton you need to have an open mind and a willingness to let your imagination be stretched just a little bit. I think it's her trademark style to write stories that are not only atmospheric but sometimes just a little over the top. And while Dead Scared sticks mostly to the mainstream this time around (at least compared to her earlier stories), the creepy factor still figures in heavily. Like her previous novel, Now You See Me, Dead Scared is akin to a police procedural, but Bolton really puts her own spin on it. As usual there are lots of good elements wrapped up in the story--suspense, mystery, a dash of romance (am hesitant to use that word--rather there are ongoing relationships she is exploring), and her usual edge-of-your-seat storytelling.
In Now You See Me, Bolton introduced several characters who have returned in her newest for yet another unusual murder case. This time around nothing is cut and dried. As a matter of fact it's not really clear at the start that a crime has even been committed. DC Lacey Flint is a woman of mystery, and as narrators go she wasn't one that I trusted entirely last time around. I wasn't sure how reliable she was in Now You See Me, and while her motivations are somewhat clearer now, she certainly has a murky past. In Now You See Me Lacey had the misfortune to be the sole witness to a murder--a woman who had just been stabbed literally dies in her arms. When the police arrive on the scene they're not sure if Lacey is also a victim, or maybe even the perpetrator. One of the investigating officers, DI Mark Joesbury, doesn't trust Lacey and is sure she is involved in the murder somehow, but the two are still oddly attracted to each other giving the story a nice tension that is further explored this time out.
I was happy to see the pair return in Dead Secret along with a couple of other characters from an even earlier book. This newest story takes place shortly after the copycat Ripper murders of the previous novel. There have been a string of unusual suicides at Cambridge and Joesbury asks Lacey to enter the university as a student to observe the situation. She's not meant to investigate but only interact with the students and try to get a sense if there is truly something unusual going on or if the deaths have simply been coincidental. The thing is the deaths seem to straddle a fine line between the two possibilities. It's not unusual for there to be a handful of suicides amongst the university community, but the deaths (rather the methods) that have caught Joesbury's attention seem to verge on the macabre--not at all your typical student suicide.
It's the attempted, yet failed, suicide by a young woman in St. John's College that prompts Joesbury to ask Lacey to go undercover. The suicides have similarities--they mostly are young women who are folding under the pressures of university life, who are depressed and perhaps easily persuaded to take their lives. And just how they choose to end their lives isn't exactly the norm. Nothing so simple as taking an overdose of pills. A young woman lies in intensive care at a local hospital after she doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire on the student commons. No one actually saw her do it, yet the clues all point to her having acted alone. Once afire she stepped into the room where the rest of the student body witnessed her attempt. It was only thanks to the quick reaction of another student that she remains alive, but barely.
So Lacey takes her room and acts the young, naive and struggling student in order to try and lure out the persons involved in the student's suicide attempt (or possible attempted murder). Not happy to be simply an observer, Lacey notices that there is something decidedly strange going on in Cambridge and begins to investigate on her own. Although she's unable to pinpoint whether or not it's online chat rooms preying on the students and helping them make the choice to commit suicide, Lacey does notice that whatever fear each girl had seems to be at the center of what ultimately pushes her over the edge.
No one knows that Lacey is working undercover save for one of the university's psychologists, Dr. Evi Oliver. Evi played a prominent role in Bolton's earlier novel, Blood Harvest. Confined mostly to a wheelchair after a skiing accident, Evi is grappling with ghosts of her own as well as a failed relationship that began in Blood Harvest. Strange things have been happening to her, inexplicable things that no one else should know about, fears that she has kept hidden deep inside from her own childhood are being used to bait her and perhaps push her over the edge as well--just like the other deaths. Is Evi the next victim?
I've read and enjoyed all of S.J. Bolton's books save one, which I am looking forward to picking up at some point. I sort of like having one unread book by her on hand to tide me over until she writes another. Hopefully she'll continue writing about Lacey and Joesbury as they are intriguing characters with flawed pasts and an unresolved relationship, so lots of material to work with there I expect. As usual with S.J. Bolton--perfect summer reading.