Bad People… you ain’t kidding!
With a wince-inducing prologue and an ending to make you gawp, Bad People is in turns a dark thriller and police procedural, with evil running through its core. The quiet Yorkshire village of Stormer Hill is in trouble. Over the past few years, three children have disappeared into thin air, with no witnesses and no evidence discovered. Enter Alex Palmer, a crime writer with a celebrity status, who’s haunted by a defining incident in his former career as a police officer. He’s staying in the village to overcome writers’ block and find inspiration for his next novel. Detective Constable Tom Nolan is charged with guiding Palmer around the distraught families of the missing children. Then, tragedy strikes once more, and the pair are drawn into a nasty underworld where bad things haunt the shadows.
The first thing I want to do is highlight author Craig Wallwork’s evocatively drawn Stormer Hill. I am a big believer in setting being a character, and his attention to detail here creates an uneasy atmosphere. The village and the surrounding countryside are tangible and nicely done; what should be a bucolic idyll is inverted into a strange, unsafe landscape. Also, the quality of the writing overall. It flows freely yet has remarkable control. Bad People is busy plot-wise, but it also feels like Wallwork is enjoying the journey of discovery as much as we are, and that’s a delight. To me, the setting and the descriptive narrative fast became one satisfying mix: Stormer Hill’s appearance on an old Ordnance Survey map “resembled the outline of a human heart” and is cloaked in the kind of darkness only the countryside manages. Then there’s the characters. They have “pomegranate flesh” and hair the colour of scrambled egg. One’s skin “had all the colour of moonlight punched through a stormy night.” The author’s rich style weaves Stormer Hill and its inhabitants together nicely.
Meanwhile, the investigation aspect of the novel is handled with confidence. Unlike some writers, Wallwork has not been tempted to include long, drawn-out descriptions of, say, evidence collection which can slow down the narrative. Instead, he’s chosen enough details to assure us that the police are doing their job, allowing us to enjoy – if that’s the correct word! – the full-on horror of the blackness stalking Stormer Hill and its inhabitants. All I would say, and this is a very teeny thing, is that sometimes I found the character’s reminiscences into their backstories a diversion from the action. Backstory is a devilish thing. It’s necessary, and I’m not sure there’s a correct answer when it comes to where exactly it fits in. In Bad People, the here-and-now story is so riveting and busy that I noticed it perhaps more than I would normally. So rather than a criticism, please read this as a compliment about the plot: a plot as nasty and dark as you can get. But there are lighter moments to counterbalance the pervading gruesomeness and fear. For example, Palmer must endure a poorly attended book signing at the village library, organised by his publicity-hot agent Juliet, and do battle with the locals.
I gather this is the first novel about the detective Nolan. This surprised me; I interpreted the writer, Palmer, as the protagonist and Nolan as the obligatory lead police officer – a thriller first, police procedural second. Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing; it was only until I reached the end that I realised I’d got the balance wrong. And therefore, this is why I’m bringing it up at all: I have the sneaky feeling the author will be pleased to know I was so wrong-footed and chuckle wryly at my comment. You need to read Bad People to see precisely what I mean. Misdirection is a powerful – surely essential – tool in crime writing, and Wallwork gets a massive tick here for the way he’s played with the narrative balance to his advantage, and also for many other reasons (which would be wrong to draw attention to in a review). I applaud how he kept control of the twists and turns in the story and, like every good novel, the small details count – but not until you’ve dismissed them first. I must also say Wallwork knowingly breaks the “rules” too, within the first couple of pages in fact, to great effect.
Let’s face it: we pick up books with certain expectations, drawn from the cover, the blurb, the author… box books into whatever genre or sub-genre you will, but ultimately it comes down to enjoyment. I like that Bad People crisscrosses these boxes. Is it a thriller? Yes. Is it a police procedural? Yes. Is it horror? Absolutely. It’s slippery and, for me, therein lies its appeal. One could say Wallwork as much a magician as he is a writer, and he’s certainly mastered a trick or two. Or three. Or four…
Bad People by Craig Wallwork is self-published. Buy the book.