'Much of the time, watching their golden existence, he carried on alone, like some tiny rocky planet orbiting twin suns, so far out as to feel little warmth.'
Valerie Laws's The Rotting Spot is a thriller, and a very good one at that; but it's ultimately about love and loss, the corrosive effects of secrets, and the skeletons (or should that be skulls?) that sometimes rattle around in the most apparently innocent of closets. It is also - as the passage above testifies - extremely well-written.
Much of the action centres around Erica, a pint-sized homoeopathist who, in her spare time, loves nothing more than collecting skulls. Yes, you read that correctly: it's a hobby she picked up from her erstwhile friend and employer, skull hunter Mickey, whose passion in life is amassing the crania of dead animals. 'The rotting spot' of the title refers to the place where Mickey leaves the severed heads to decay, until the flesh and soft material is stripped away, leaving only bone . . . It may sound vile, but it's just a harmless, albeit eccentric, hobby. Or is it? The novel keeps you guessing, on that and many other points. The ultimate prize for the committed skull hunter is, after all, a human skull . . .
When Lucy, Erica's childhood friend, goes missing, the police are initially reluctant to take a great deal of action (understandably - an adult is perfectly entitled to wander off if he or she wants to). However, Erica is unconvinced that Lucy's vanished of her own free will: she had a good life, not to mention a young son. In fact, Erica quickly begins to suspect that Lucy's disappearance has something to do with the almost-parallel vanishing, years before, of her cousin Molly. What follows is a complex and clever mystery, in which the layers of ordinary family life are stripped away like - well, like flesh from bone, I suppose.
Erica's pursuit of the truth brings her into contact with Inspector Will Bennett, who is also investigating Lucy's disappearance. They soon develop a sort of love-hate relationship: they clash repeatedly, and yet are constantly drawn back to each other, eventually forming an odd, unofficial partnership. Will personal or professional sparks fly? Given Valerie Laws's penchant for surprising her readers, it's as well not to assume anything.
Laws is also a poet - known, amongst other things, for spray-painting quantum theory onto a flock of sheep, no less - and what makes The Rotting Spot stand out amongst thrillers is the beautiful, evocative writing. Laws's familiarity with, and affection for, North East England comes through in every page and every vivid place description. It's there too in the local dialect used by many of the characters. Reproducing dialect in writing is difficult, at least if it's to be effective and not annoying, but Laws succeeds beautifully; it helps the characters to come to life, so real and vivid that they all but leap off the page.
And yet, gorgeous writing notwithstanding, the pace rarely slows. Even as the characters question themselves and each other, so too does the reader. Things are never quite what they seem - the line between heroes and villains is constantly blurred, not least because the characters are all drawn with just the right level of psychological complexity. Nobody can be taken at face value. And in a crime novel, of course, this is a very good thing - who can be trusted? What secrets are people hiding? The tension that follows in the wake of these questions keeps on rising. And the end, when it comes, features a twist that, like many a good twist, surprises us - and yet, when we look back, not only makes sense but seems almost inevitable.