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Book Review: Cold Remains by Sally Spedding

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Cold Remains is the sixth novel by Sally Spedding, well-known in Britain for her chilling thrillers, hovering on the intersections between crime, horror, mystery, the historical and the paranormal. Increasingly read in the U.S., she is a writer to reckon with, to dive into if you can handle truly creepy thrillers, to avoid if you want to curl up with a cosy mystery.

Sally Spedding is tough, as a writer, a thinker, an observer of the human race. She is a top-notch narrator, and in Cold Remains she tells a shocking story, set in the present day in her native Wales, but harking back to the post-war years in rural Carmarthenshire, a Welsh county of great natural beauty, shading off in this novel to the horrors that lie beneath its verdant surface.

These horrors are filtered through into the present by the tormented soul of a girl who lived and died in that earlier time–yes, certainly, a ghost who intervenes in the action of the novel. But this is not a ghost story set in the unreal landscape of someone’s imagination. No, like all Spedding’s novels, it is a narrative firmly rooted in reality, in the real life of present-day Britain where people, very much including the two main protagonists, are struggling to survive in increasingly uncertain economic circumstances.

But ghosts there are. The Prologue to the novel, a one-page sustained moment of horror, experienced by a young woman on Christmas Eve, 1946, introduces in classic Spedding style the mystery that underlies the plot, and that will gradually, very gradually, be revealed as the plot unfolds. The Prologue entices us into the story; we do not know what to make of it, whether we can trust the narrator to be telling the truth of what happened, the truth as seen by the young woman, or a version of the truth deliberately created by her. But we want to know. Our curiosity is aroused, and we do not forget that Prologue although it is left hanging mysteriously in the air of 1946 while the narrative of the novel picks up in our own time, March 2009.

A young man in London, made redundant in his latest unskilled job, is now at his wits’ end—a realistic enough event of our times. Jason sees a notice by chance in a magazine in a doctor’s waiting-room. It advertizes a writing course in Heron House in the “beautiful Upper Towy Valley,” and since he is an aspiring writer of thrillers with nowhere to go, he impulsively makes a phone call to Heron House, and so takes his first step on the anything but beautiful road to that dark mansion with its large moss-covered roof and two tall but unmatched chimneys, “its gabled upper windows jutting out like mean little eyes.”

Once at Heron House, he meets his shifty host, the supposedly successful Irish writer, Monty Flynn, and his two seedily sinister old retainers, a couple locked in mutual antagonism with the other main propeller of the plot, an attractive young Welsh woman, Helen Jenkins, a recently graduated art student who, like Jason, has come to Heron House out of economic necessity. She has a job there as a cook, an unlikely position for a girl whose primary culinary achievement is making stacks of white-bread sandwiches. These two, Jason and Helen, have seemingly wandered into the enigmatic world of Heron House by mistake–or have they been lured into it? And the narrative is propelled forward by their gradual unraveling of the secrets of the house, as they uncover the horrific events of the past when a group called The Order committed unspeakable acts of debauchery and violence, events stretching their ugly tentacles into the present.

Spedding is a top-notch plotter, and the reader moves step by step through the terrible voyage of discovery made by these two perfectly ordinary, perfectly nice young people, gradually falling in love with each other, but also increasingly absorbed, each in an individual way, with the mystery of Heron House. The plot of this long novel is developed chapter by short chapter, the suspense growing as the chapter-perspectives in the 2009 time frame alternate among Jason, Helen and occasionally one of the undoubted villains of the piece. And, every so often, one of most fascinating aspects of the way the plot is developed, we are privy in chapters of his own to the perspective of a good man of the 1946 time-frame, one Lionel Hargreaves, headmaster of the local school.

Cold Remains is not a short novel in which characters are sketched in, and action is all. We come to know the characters, inhabitants of the small Welsh village of Rhandirmyn, past and present, some psychologically damaged people whom we might prefer not to know in such detail, but some instantly likable human-beings, made eminently comprehensible in their setting. Through the chapters in which we follow Mr. Hargreaves, for example–an Englishman marooned in Wales, not speaking the Welsh language but trying to build a genuinely good school curriculum for his Welsh-speaking pupils–Spedding builds a convincing portrait of the very different time-period in Carmarthenshire when the strange goings-on in Heron House began. As well-drawn and realistic a character in his time as Jason and Helen in theirs, we see him in his school with his pupils, children who appear in the second time-frame of the novel as adults. Mr. Hargreaves is not at all in the know, but he, like Jason and Helen, takes it upon himself to investigate Heron House and ultimately pays the highest price for his investigations. Thus are we led step by step through the unraveling of the mystery in the two time frames, post-war and present, coming together finally to show us the real truth of the narrative.

The strands of the plot are brilliantly interwoven. And when we think we know it all, what happened in the past and where our two young protagonists are now, Spedding throws us a final twist of the plot. If you have allowed yourself to be involved in their fate, this will knock you off your feet. Some “cold remains” have certainly been brought to light, there has been some resolution of the novel’s mysteries, we know now finally how to interpret that provocative prologue, but do we find any comforting restoration of order? No, Sally Spedding does not aspire to this. On the contrary, we find ourselves re-reading the title of the novel with a new even more horrifying verbal emphasis: Surely the cold remains.

 

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About Dorothy James

Born in Wales and grew up in the South Wales Valleys, lives now in Brooklyn, New York. Writer, editor, translator, has published short stories as well as books and articles on German and Austrian literature. Taught German language and literature at the University of London and the City University of New York, and English language at the University of Saarbrücken in Germany.. Chair of the German Department of Hunter College for fourteen years. Wrote and published a murder mystery in 2010, and blogs on mysteries and topics arising therefrom: www.myplaceformystery.com.,