Letters from the Dead by Sam Hurcom: This is crime thriller and gothic grotesque at its very best - book review -
Haunted by terrifying visions of the dead, pioneering forensic police photographer Thomas Bexley is struggling to stay sober… and sane.
But when a former friend and mentor falls under police suspicion for a string of sinister kidnappings in London, Bexley becomes determined to shake off his torpor and prove the man’s innocence.
If you missed Sam Hurcom’s spectacular and highly acclaimed gothic debut, A Shadow on the Lens, last year, dive into this unmissable new case and be prepared for a chilling, thrilling ride to the dark side of the early 20th century.
Tingling with skin-crawling vibes, and steeped in an atmosphere so malign that the pages are often turned with a trembling hand, Letters from the Dead is a raw and riveting reading experience, best consumed amidst the gloom of a winter’s night.
Daring to take the spotlight in a landscape rendered base and brooding is our unique protagonist Thomas Bexley, a flawed and fascinating man scarred by the horrors he has witnessed, and constantly teetering on the edge of madness… but still with his sights set on truth and justice.
In London in 1905, a year after the horrific ‘affair’ in Dinas Powys in Wales, Bexley is on extended leave of absence and has become a drunkard and recluse, haunted by terrible visions of the dead. His days are spent contemplating suicide or drinking himself into oblivion to escape his living nightmare.
But when he is summoned to a meeting with the Metropolitan Police, Bexley learns of a spate of extraordinary kidnappings by ‘an unknown foe’ which is paralysing the city. There have been eleven kidnappings so far and the police fear the victims are all dead, even though their bodies have not been found.
Some believe the kidnapper, dubbed the ‘Wraith of London,’ is not truly human but a phantom, an ungodly being with the power to move unhindered through walls and locked doors. And what shocks Bexley even more is that his dear friend and former mentor in the Forensic Crime Directorate, Professor Elijah Hawthorn, is the main suspect in this ‘monstrous brutality.’
Discovering a plea for help from Hawthorn amongst some of his unread mail at home, in which the professor claims to have unearthed a ‘deep corruption’ at the heart of the Metropolitan Police, Bexley embarks on a journey to Scotland to try to prove Hawthorn’s innocence.
But wherever he goes, Bexley is still followed by the dead, and as the mystery of Hawthorn’s disappearance deepens, so too does his apparent insanity. How can Bexley be certain of the truth when he can’t trust anybody around him… not even himself?
Travelling alongside Bexley is like entering a parallel universe where the grit, grime and earthy realities of the Edwardian period form the compelling backdrop to a plot dripping in mystery, malevolence and hideous supernatural apparitions.
Hurcom’s moody, descriptive writing, and a finely tuned sense of the macabre, underpin all thought and action as readers are carried along in the wake of a man whose unreliability as a narrator adds to the compulsive drive of a shocking crime which is constantly clothed in a veil of menace and dangerous unpredictably.
With the atmospherics of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the chill factor of Sarah Waters’ Little Strangers, Letters from the Dead has that rare quality of being both deeply unsettling and thoroughly satisfying as Hurcom delivers a series of shocking and masterfully executed plot twists right through to the jaw-dropping finale.
With its excitingly original star player, a story painted over with hues of authentic history, and exuding a claustrophobic intensity that requires regular reminders to breathe in, this is crime thriller and gothic grotesque at its very best.
(Orion, hardback, £14.99)