The Last House on Needless Street
Viper, £12.99, pp352
Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street, which opens 11 years after a little girl vanishes on a family trip to a lake, comes emblazoned with glowing – and much-deserved – praise from her fellow authors: Stephen King, no less, calls it the most exciting novel since Gone Girl, and “a true nerve-shredder”. It is the story of a child whose life was stolen, of Ted, the man who may or may not have done it, and of Dee, the sister out for revenge. That might make The Last House on Needless Street sound straightforward – it’s not. This is the most gloriously complex, shifting story, deeply disturbing yet also, somehow, heartwarming. Ted lives in a boarded-up house on Needless Street on the edge of the forest, with his daughter Lauren (who sometimes has to go away) and his cat Olivia; he is confused, childlike, flipping in and out of the present and the past as he remembers being questioned by the police years earlier over the disappearance of “Little Girl With Popsicle”, and as he thinks of his mother, who was “born far away… under a dark star”. Dee’s family and life have fallen apart after the disappearance of her sister Lulu. She “feels like a big, dark, empty room” and is fixed on finding whoever took Lulu. Ward has created something exceptionally unsettling here, as many-layered and sinister as the Russian doll that sits on Ted’s mantelpiece. Olivia, Ted’s cat, given wonderfully vain voice by Ward, imagines them “all screaming in the dark, unable to move or speak”, as the outer sits “broad and blankly smiling”.
Hard Cast Crime, £8.99, pp272
Stephen King sets out his stall early in Later: “Like I said,” narrator Jamie Conklin tells us, “this is a horror story.” Jamie is a normal boy growing up in New York, the son of Tia, a single mother and literary agent who tells him pleasingly self-referential things such as “most writers are as weird as turds that glow in the dark”. Normal except Jamie can see dead people, for just a few days after they die (“It’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis,” he assures us). It’s a talent that his mother largely wants to ignore, until her top client Regis Thomas dies with the final novel in his long-running (and joyfully terrible) series unfinished. You can guess where this is going: Jamie is called in to help. But when his mother’s police detective lover also learns about Jamie’s abilities, she draws him into the case of a notorious serial killer, with terrible consequences. King is having a great deal of fun here, whether he’s sounding off about Thomas’s blockbusters, which are steamily filled with “a big hot helping of good old S-E-X” performed by “strong men with fair hair and laughing eyes, untrustworthy men with shifty eyes… and gorgeous women with firm, high breasts”, or piling on the good old-fashioned scares. Later is a horror story, but it’s also a proper thriller, told by a master of his craft.
The Eighth Girl
Maxine Mei-Fung Chung
Pushkin Vertigo, £14.99, pp480
The Eighth Girl is the first novel from psychoanalytic psychotherapist and clinical supervisor Maxine Mei-Fung Chung. It is the story of Alexa Wú, a brilliant young photographer who hides the fact she has been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder, from everyone except her best friend Ella, her therapist Daniel and her stepmother Anna. One of the causes of the disorder is trauma in childhood, and it soon becomes clear that Alexa’s childhood was horribly disturbed. She mostly manages her competing personalities – the “Flock”, as she calls them – well as an adult, letting various identities take “the Light” and seize control of “the Body” when it suits. There’s Dolly, forever nine, Oneiroi, dreamy and kind, fierce Runner, who comes out when Alexa needs protection, and the Fouls, who arrived shortly after Alexa’s mother killed herself. The truth of who Alexa is, and how she feels, is “safely masked and protected by all the personalities I’d hidden inside”. But then Ella gets a job at a strip club, and the pair stumble into a dangerous world of abuse and sex-trafficking in the underbelly of London. The second I finished this extremely impressive debut, I went back to the beginning and read it again: I defy anyone else to do otherwise.
Not Dark Yet
Hodder & Stoughton, £20, pp384
Detective superintendent Alan Banks is, incredibly, on his 27th outing in Not Dark Yet, and he has a lot to deal with this time round, from a double murder (of a crooked property developer and his aid at a luxury mansion) to his friend Zelda’s decision to find the men who abducted, raped and trafficked her in Moldova years earlier. There is a particularly poignant moment, early on, as Zelda walks the streets of her childhood, from which she was stolen as an orphan, and Banks watches his daughter Tracy get married in the Yorkshire Dales town of Eastvale: both of them looking back on their pasts, from such different places. As Banks and his team discover spy-cam videos showing a vicious rape in the home of the property developer, Zelda is out for revenge, fearful that, without it, the “past would keep growing, like a cancer inside her, consuming or blotting out all that was good in her life”. This series continues to be as thoughtful and intelligent as ever, with the usual bonus of the magnificent Dales, all “rolling hills, drystone walls, grazing sheep and flimsy white clouds snaking across a clear blue sky”. At one point, Banks’s son Brian asks him why he isn’t considering retirement – an allotment; puttering in the garden; watching too much TV – rather than the “copper’s life”. “But what else would I do?” he responds. Long may it continue.
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