The popularity of Scottish crime fiction shows no signs of slowing with new titles published weekly, Bloody Scotland becoming one of the largest and most popular book festivals in the country, and an increasing number of writers deciding to turn their hand to the genre. A positive aspect of this last development is that you are getting greater diversity in terms of styles and voices, something which was not always the case.
The latest, and one of the finest, examples of this is Helen Sedgwick’s When The Dead Come Calling, her third novel following on from the acclaimed The Comet Seekers and The Growing Season. Those can both be linked to her scientific background (Sedgwick has a PhD in Physics) and were critically well-received and reviewed, so it was with a mixture of curiosity and excitement to read her first foray into the world of crime.
Anyone familiar with her previous work will bring their own expectations to When The Dead Come Calling, namely that there would be great care and attention to the details of what unfolds (a distinct advantage for any crime writer), but also a literary investigation that would go beyond police procedure and deduction. There is something of a balancing act required from a writer in this position, having to keep those regular readers happy while fulfilling the requirements of those who are well-versed in crime.
Sedgwick does this with aplomb, marrying genre conventions and tropes with a more psychological, and sociopolitical, investigation into events, and the people and places at the heart of them. As well as murder, danger, intrigue,and plenty of plot twists and turns, When The Dead Come Calling looks at racism, immigration, familial abuse, unemployment, poverty, drug and alcohol misuse, and many other subjects which are at the heart of the current national conversation. While you are pulled in trying to solve the crimes and discover the motivations behind them you can’t ignore the social commentary running throughout.
Setting the action in Burrowhead, a small isolated village in the north of England, means there are immediate parallels brought to mind, many of them from TV. Think Broadchurch, Happy Valley, and even Shetland, and you have some idea as to the dark tone Sedgwick creates, and her rural setting. From the fictional villages of Midsomer to Stephen King’s Maine, it seems that there is something innately unsettling about terrible events happening in small and often tightly knit communities which still has the ability to shock and enthrall.
But Burrowhead is not some bucolic idyll. Its mysteries are often rooted in mistrust of outsiders, prejudice, xenophobia, and family feuds and grudges, some of which are generational. The local idea of ‘justice’ is often of the old testament variety, with some determined to settle scores themselves rather than turn to the police. The atmosphere this creates is unsettling, and at times it feels close to that strand of British horror where the outside world is never welcome, as can be found in films such as The Wicker Man, Stray Dogs or even Ben Wheatley’s Kill List.
While When The Dead Come Calling is undoubtedly crime fiction, these different strands give it other dimensions, and it puts me in mind of John Burnside’s ‘The Devil’s Footprints or James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack as much as it does Ann Cleeves or Peter Robinson. You start out trying to separate the innocent from the guilty before realising that it’s not as simplistic as that and what you are faced with are just different levels of guilt, with trust and redemption hard won.
With When The Dead Come Calling Helen Sedgwick has written a novel which creates an atmosphere and tension which suits these times – paranoid, uneasy, at times angry, but with a humanity which offers hope despite everything. It all makes for an enthralling read and you’ll be desperate for more by the time you’re done. Luckily we are promised this is just the first of the Burrowhead Mysteries, and the next can’t come soon enough. If you are looking for something new yet familiar for your crime pile, When The Dead Come Calling should go straight to the top.