C. J. Tudor‘s debut novel, The Chalk Man, released last year, was a fantastic success. It was a Sunday Times bestseller, shortlisted for the Steel Dagger and National Book Awards, made its way onto a number of the year’s “best of” lists, and even claimed a highly coveted quote from Stephen King, who said, “If you like my stuff, you’ll like this.” It was a success even before it was published, being Tudor’s literary agent’s fastest selling book of all time, won in a nine-way publisher auction.
The Chalk Man is a tense crime thriller with enough horrific elements to allow it to straddle that thriller-horror genre boundary. Its strengths were its intriguing and creepy premise, characterisation, evocative depiction of an English setting, and abundance of gripping plot twists. For some, those outlandish plot twists went too far. You could heap all of the same praise and criticisms on Tudor’s follow up, The Taking of Annie Thorne, confusingly titled The Hiding Place in the US. I know it’s not unusual for books to be released with different titles in the US but the act will never cease to have the stench of a marketing boardroom. But hey, different markets respond to different things, even if it leaves some readers scratching their heads.
“It’s not Annie. Something happened and she’s gone. There was a mistake. A terrible mistake, and this thing got sent back in her place. A thing that is wearing her skin and looking through her eyes but, when you look back, it’s not Annie inside.”
The novel follows Joseph (“Joe”) Thorne as he returns to Arnhill, the small Nottinghamshire town of his youth and takes up a teaching post in his former school, replacing a teacher who, apparently, shot herself and brutally murdered her own son. The words NOT MY SON are usefully smeared on a bedroom wall in blood so we know the situation is extra sinister. Joe is a compulsive liar with a shady past and even darker childhood. His motives for returning to Arnhill, a place most people would be quick to leave and never return, are unclear.
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Beth, a fellow teacher who remains Joe’s closest contact throughout the book, asks during their first meeting, “Only two types of teacher end up at Arnhill Academy. Those who want to make a difference and those who can’t get a job anywhere else. So, which are you?” For Joe, it’s a bit of both. Annie Thorne was Joe’s sister, who disappeared when she was eight and reappeared 48 hours later but she had changed. She couldn’t or wouldn’t speak about what happened to her and her personality seemed permanently altered.
One of the catalyst’s for Joe’s return was an email that read, “I know what happened to your sister. It’s happening again.” The story flicks back and forth between the present – Joe on a mission of redemption to make amends for the events of his childhood and fix a difficult situation he has since found himself in – and the past, with the events leading up to the disappearance of Annie, her reappearance, and what numerous tragedies followed.
The events of the book unfold quickly and are supported by a sharp-witted narration, a reflection of Joe’s character. While this helps keep up the pace, it transforms Joe into a character in a work of fiction because no one actually speaks like Joe, like their speech is scripted ahead of time and every sentence punctuated with a witticism. This rather irritating character flaw is just one of the things that erodes the integrity of the novel, together with the quite dizzying number of plot twists. Tudor has built a great sense of place in this grim and miserable Midlands village, but there are times I feel like she’d prefer to be writing a work of hardboiled US crime fiction. When the rug is pulled from beneath you in so many extraordinary ways, twists lose their ability to shock as does the ending you’ve been masterfully building towards.
“I thought I couldn’t feel any more afraid. As usual, I was wrong.”
The novel leaves many themes and ideas underexplored in favour of getting to the action and progressing the Plot. In particular, the are-they-or-aren’t-they supernatural elements are barely excavated. Without revealing too much – a book with this many twists is by its nature highly spoilable – there is an almost folk-horror dimension to the story, of a place with an odd and sinister history of superstition and ritual with the power to take people and return them forever changed. Without knowing Tudor’s intentions it’s hard to say for certain, but I get the impression that the horror and supernatural elements of this novel were dialled down, the publishers too worried they’d scare off the realist crime readers they were jointly marketing to. And it’s shame because the idea deserved to be given more air time.
The Taking of Annie Thorne is an enthralling and fast-paced thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat but is let down by unconvincing plot twists and under-developed horror.
The Taking of Annie Thorne (UK) / The Hiding Place (US) written by C. J. Tudor is published by Michael Joseph. Buy the book on Amazon.