Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 January 2021 in e-book from Head of Zeus
My thanks to the publisher for an early copy for review
If you go into the woods, you’re in for a dark surprise.
Thirty years ago, three girls followed a stranger into the woods. Only two returned. The surviving pair have never been able to remember what happened or what the fate of the third girl was. Local rumours talk of hippies and drugs and mystic rituals, but no one has learned the truth.
This story is just what Rowan Blake needs. He’s in debt, his journalistic career is in tatters – as well as his damaged body – and he’s retreated to the Lake District to write. Yet even Rowan isn’t prepared for the evil he is about to unearth, for the secrets that have been buried in that wood for far too long…
I’m a fan of David Mark’s writing. His brain never fails to come up with an intriguing plot, some fascinating and often dark characters and usually a good helping of dark and gruesome. He is good at levelling this style with dark humour and a bit of the ordinary in life which brings it all together in a believable way.
Our protagonist is Rowan Blake, a journalist with a bit of a moral vacuum. With one moderately successful true crime book behind him (critics liked it, didn’t make mass sales) he is now bereft of ideas and his publisher is biting his ear off for the book whose advance has long since been spent on drink and other necessities of life.
When we meet him, he is nursing badly injured hands as a result of an encounter with someone who really didn’t like his last book and Rowan has retreated to his sister’s cottage in the Lake District, the biliously named Bilberry Byre, ostensibly to write his next, now very late, book, but in fact to lie low and hope no-one finds him.
It doesn’t hurt that he can live rent free, either. Having left journalism to write books, he has no source of income to fall back on. Just as well his sister, Serendipity (Dippy) is a decent woman who though she despairs of her brother, still doesn’t have the heart to see him on his uppers without helping.
Dippy’s 12 year old daughter, Snowdrop is entranced by her uncle. She dreams of becoming a journalist and is determined to help him with whatever his next project is. In fact, she has an idea that he might want to explore.
Dippy has a friend, Violet Sheehan, who is a member of the local library book club. Three decades ago, she was a pupil at the Silver Birch Academy, an alternative, slightly hippy school in Wasdale with new age ideas and a holistic approach where the teaching was relaxed and pupils were encouraged to express themselves and to explore alternative cultures.
Violet had two friends then: Catherine Marlish, the local vicar’s daughter and Freya, a new girl at the school whose father was away on business so much of the time that she really just lived at the school.
Mr Sixpence, was the school healer; something of a shaman, he worked with the unhappy and troubled pupils sent there by harassed and troubled parents who didn’t have any ideas about how else to find help for their children. Mr Sixpence was a gentle, friendly soul whose treatments may have been unorthodox, but who listened and seemed to get results.
It all came adrift after one night when these three friends went into the woods with a stranger and though no-one can remember exactly what happened, only two came out again and Mr Sixpence was never seen again.
Now Violet has been trying to piece together bits of her fragmented memory and to write it down, hoping to make sense of it. But Violet, who was never the most likeable of children, prone to selfishness and bouts of rebellion, has suddenly gone off on her travels to ‘find herself’.
Still, Rowan sees the kernel of a story here. At the very least, it is something he can sell to his publisher to keep him off Rowan’s back; at best it will turn out to be a story worth pursuing. With Snowdrop ready at his side to push him when he loses heart, Rowan begins to investigate.
David Mark writes a slow burn of a novel that creeps into your soul and slowly wraps its evil tentacles round your heart squeezing roughly as it finds the weak spots and starts to exert its horrific hold on you. The dank weather and the bleak, sparse woods with their old mine workings hold horrors that you wish you hadn’t discovered.
There is real malevolence here; a madness in the air and as Rowan looks more deeply he finds a trail of menace, violence, evil and corruption that some have worked hard for years to keep buried.
Mark’s characterisation is spot on. Rowan Blake is a fascinating character – a mix of rascal and intrepid journalist. Blake is a charming rogue and a man with no moral compass and no hesitation when it comes to getting a story.
With this book you want to give yourself time to soak in the atmosphere and consider the complexity of all the characters. Mark’s writing drips with atmosphere and the sense of menace and real evil is palpable even leavened as it is by some fantastic darkly humorous moments.
I’ve become a huge David Mark fan over the course of several of his books and I loved this one for its atmosphere, characters and the way in which he magically captures the intensity of the story.
Verdict: Utterly compelling reading, it held me in its grasp and squeezed ‘til I was breathless.
David Mark spent more than 15 years as a journalist, including seven years as a crime reporter with The Yorkshire Post – walking the Hull streets that would later become the setting for the internationally bestselling Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy novels.His writing is heavily influenced by the court cases he covered: the defeatist and jaded police officers; the inertia of the justice system and the sheer raw grief of those touched by savagery and tragedy