REVIEWED: Penhale Wood


Penhale Wood by Julia Thomas (Mystery Novel, 2017).

This new mystery is about a cold case and has a pronounced focus on the motivations, psychologies and obsessions of its characters (even the relatively minor ones). It will definitely appeal to readers who like a multi-layered narrative with subplots, some only tenuously connected to the case itself.

Detective Chief Inspector Rob McIntyre is a veteran cop, with a fairly standard issue younger police sidekick, a semi-famous ex-live-in girlfriend who writes murder mysteries who dumped him sometime back and–well–very little else in the way of a life. His life (such as it is) is suddenly disrupted when Iris Flynn appears to insist that he revisit the case of her 3-year-old daughter’s unsolved abduction and murder a year previously.

The child had been abducted by an unofficial nanny who had accompanied Iris, her feckless Australian husband and their daughters when their latest wanderings brought them back from America to the part of England where Iris had been born. The nanny disappeared, while little Sophie was found on a riverbank, her neck brutally broken.

Despite his conviction that the case is hopeless, Rob is drawn to Iris and her obsessive crusade to locate her murderous onetime friend. As might be expected, the investigation takes several twists and turns, including a false lead (or is it?) from a self-described psychic that sets in motion events that improbably involve Rob’s distant ex and the young woman who has become the writer’s assistant, with violent and quite unnecessary results.

It is Julia Thomas’s 2nd novel, following The English Boys. I haven’t read the earlier work, although given the title and the fact that Penhale Wood is set in Cornwall, one is led to the conclusion that, although Thomas was educated in and is currently living in the US, she finds England personally fascinating. It seems to me that Thomas gets matters like dialogue, slang and idioms right for the most part–though at one point I did note car trouble referred to a ‘tire’ (rather than the English spelling of ‘tyre’).

A very small nit to pick, I admit. But given the masterful way Thomas otherwise immerses the reader in these (mostly) English folks’ lives, it was a stumble I couldn’t quite overlook. The critical editor lurking in my inner depths (DOWN you cranky beast!) wants to drop the 2nd use of the word ‘two’ in the book’s very 1st paragraph as unneeded and found a couple brief scenes momentarily confusing. Again, very minor points.

Of more concern to me was the fairly incredible coincidence that involves the above-mentioned author (whom Rob still pines for during much of the book) in the whole nasty and painful business. And why did the police distribute the (apparently) unreliable image based on the psychic’s vision, when it didn’t correspond to the known suspect’s looks?

On the other hand, I was gratified that, once the final twist leads to capturing the killer. Iris and Rob do NOT fall instantly and painlessly fall into a full-blown romantic relationship. There’s been too much pain involved for them both. Oh, sure, these two lonely people have something brewing. But though that’s clearly on the horizon, Iris is busy rebuilding her life (minus the faithless walkabout-happy excuse for a husband, but with her surviving children). And she’s also repairing some very strained family relationships. Rob will surely be part of her future, despite guilt he feels for letting certain things get dangerously out of hand (I won’t say more–read the book to find out).

Overall, I’d call this one a good and promising, if not quite great book. It’s well worth reading and Julia Thomas (married, I should note, to another mystery writer, Will Thomas) is someone to keep an eye on–especially for readers who crave emotional and psychological insights in their whodunits.




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