I am not a big consumer of crime novels and I actively avoid reading horror (life is scary enough without a terrifying top up thank you very much). Yet I read RATTLE within twenty-four hours and one month later, I am still thinking about it. You will hear a lot more about this stunning debut from Fiona Cummins both before and after it is published on January 26th 2016. Val McDermid has called it ‘Harrowing and horrifying, head and shoulders above the competition’, and it is being marketed as a frightening thriller for fans of Silence of the Lambs. All of this is true but if like me crime or horror is not your thing, I want to explain why you absolutely should read this book.
As with all great novels, I knew from the first line and first page that I was in the hands of a great writer.
If Erdman Frith had chosen pizza instead of roast beef, his son might have been spared.
If Jakey Frith had been a little more ordinary, the bogeyman that stalked the shadows of his life would have been nothing more than a childhood memory, to be dusted off and laughed at on occasions.
If Clara Foyle’s parents had been a little less self-absorbed and a little more focussed on their five-year-old-daughter, her disappearance might never have happened at all.
As for Detective Sergeant Etta Fitzroy, if she hadn’t been haunted by thoughts of what might have been, both children would have tumbled from the blaze of newspaper headlines into the darkest reaches of infamy.
But none of them suspected anything of this on that wet November afternoon, just hours before their lives collided and cracked open to reveal the truth of them all.
I have quoted this page in full because this illustrates not just the skill of Fiona Cummins but because it introduces the cast list and tells the story in miniature. As the Bone Collector moves amongst them, the lives of these very different characters fall open to our gaze. One of the most powerful aspects of this novel for me was just how effectively Fiona Cummins explores the impact of a sudden crisis on relationships. In some superficially strong families, fear and grief give birth to blame and suspicion, whereas in others, relationships are re-forged as parents are reunited around the shared love of their child. I particularly adored the character of Erdman Frith, who begins as a rather lack-lustre, failing husband but grows rather than sinks under the weight of what he and his family has to bear.
But it is the children that will tear at your heart and keep you turning the pages, desperately praying that they will be saved. I don’t think I have ever felt as tense whilst reading a book as I did with RATTLE. I think this is because Fiona Cummins is not afraid to go where even our darkest imaginations fear to tread. The majority of us pull back from the things that frighten us most but sometimes a lone, brave writer forges ahead, forcing us to look into the darkest corners of our world.
And when we look into the darkness, sometimes we find not just spiders, cobwebs and shifting shadows but real, solid evil. With the Bone Collector, Fiona Cummins has crafted a character as terrifying, iconic and enduring as the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He is, as his name suggests, a collector of bones – and like all collectors, he is always looking out for rare examples to add to his collection. His work is described to us in unflinching, forensic detail and the author has a gift for conveying the particular stench of his gruesome hobby: the bones, the chemicals, the undernotes of decay. Even now, a month after reading, I can still smell this book.
But this is not just a book about bones and fear. It is about the flesh that holds our bones together and the love and hope that connects us. It reminds us that love is fear: if you love someone, your greatest fear is that you will lose them. I think that is why I found RATTLE so unsettling – in fact it would be fair to say that it rattled me. It is also why a month later I am still thinking about this book and why I fully expect it to be one of the biggest hits of 2017.
Thanks to Francesa Pearce at Macmillan for a free copy of RATTLE in response to some discreet pleading on twitter.