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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.

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.,