DEATH OF A MERMAID
Freddy left her childhood home in Newhaven twenty-two years ago and swore never to return. But now her parents are dead, and she’s back in her hometown to help her brothers manage the family fishmonger.
Nothing here has changed: the stink of fish coming up from the marshes; the shopping trolleys half-buried by muddy tides; the neighbours sniffing for a new piece of gossip.
It’s not what Freddy would have chosen, but at least while she’s here she’ll get to see her childhood best friends, Toni and Mags. At school, the three of them were inseparable. The teachers called them the Mermaids for their obsession with the sea, and with each other.
Then Mags goes missing, and Freddy must decide. Go back home to her new life, or stay in Newhaven and find her friend?
Lesley was born in 1958 and brought up in Hammersmith, West London. She graduated from Brighton University in 1981 and moved to Sydney, Australia the year after, where in between writing her first attempt at a novel, she sold newspapers in a shop at Wynyard underground station in the heart of the city.
Returning to London, Lesley held down several jobs to support her writing, including working for one of the first Internet companies in the UK. She completed an MA in English Literature at Sussex University and she is now a guest tutor on the Creative writing and Publishing MA at West Dean, where she also runs a crime-writing short course, leads workshops and takes master classes on writing crime novels.
Lesley currently divides her time between East Sussex and Gloucestershire, living with her partner and dog, both of whom are treated to blow by blow accounts of scenes and twists in a plot at any given time. In fact, she doesn’t know how they sleep at night!
“Buffeted by the wind a woman picked her way down the cliff path. A sign on the shingle ridge warned, ‘No safe access beyond this point’. Icons showed four kinds of danger. Falling rocks, slippery surfaces, rocky foreshore and deep water with high tides.
The sun had set, the sky towards Shoreham was washed pink.
Four dangers. What is the fifth danger? Or who?”
“Success breeds expectation”
“Long ago I learnt if you don’t rely on others, they can’t let you down”
“Sometimes it was the open and shut cases that were hard to close”
“Recently, with Ricky away more frequently and in a bad mood when he was on shore, Toni had begun to question the wisdom of her move to the coast. She valued London’s anonymity over the seaside town of best-forgotten faces. The answer lay in the darkness beyond the beach. As the crews worked on in comparative silence, Toni caught the hush and push of the tide. She smelled seaweed on the swift breeze. She’d been lured by another kind of siren to the blues and twos. The sea had called her home”
“Many settled for a compromise that lowered the tidemark of happiness but was better than nothing”
“Obviously, he was innocent, but almost because of that, he was wide open to looking as guilty as hell. Malcolm had said everything you did was out of character until you did it. Murder was no exception”
“The Mermaids were three women who’d chosen different seas”
I began reading this book not knowing what to expect from the title and premise alone, only certain that at some 400 pages in length, it was going to have be something special to hold my attention. Well! I had no need to worry on that score, as if I swipe the final page, when all those loose ends have been neatly tidied away, yet I still find myself wanting more and for it not to be over, then I know an author has done their job and done it well.
There are so many different strands to this storyline, yet they all fit together and are woven carefully and thoughtfully, into a final heart-stopping denouement, without any single aspect threatening to overwhelm the narrative and drive the whole thing off course.
First and foremost, there is a complicated crime or two to be solved, which is exactly what I have come to expect from the Lesley Thomson books I have read to date. However, running alongside that, religion, sexuality, the power of friendships, and the often treacherous twists of family relationships, feature boldly, yet sensitively, with no holds barred.
So, just to help set the scene…
The Mermaids are a group of three friends, bound together by their Catholic upbringing and education, who all have an enduring love and fascination for the sea and the Disney film ‘The Little Mermaid’. The problem is, for reasons known only to themselves, there can’t be four of them, so when newcomer Toni arrives at the school having recently lost her father in particularly terrible circumstances, Mags and Freddy let her into the trio and an often volatile, bullying and verbose Karen finds herself excluded to the sidelines. The situation between the once friends becomes evermore acrimonious, so as soon as their education is complete they all go their separate ways and take no active steps to keep in touch with each other.
Freddy Power’s ‘dirty’ secret is discovered by her parents and her staunchly Catholic, physically bullying and coercive father disowns her as a freak of nature and throws her out onto the street, leaving her mother and two brothers to Fred’s tender mercies. After a short stay with Toni, Freddy decides to head for Liverpool, where she ostensibly leads the kind of life she wants, although it takes her some time to realise that she has jumped out of the frying pan into the fire and she is not as free or indeed happy, as she thought she was.
Toni heads off to London where she becomes a police officer, although the lure of Newhaven has her in its grip and she eventually returns to her hometown as a Detective Inspector moving in with one of Freddy’s brothers, Ricky, who together with Freddy’s second brother Andy, run a well respected fishing enterprise made very successful by their father Fred, despite his many other shortcomings as a good human being. The patriarch of the Power family might have ruled with a rod of iron, however, I feel sure he would be turning in his grave if he knew what underhand dealings his two sons were involved in and just how close to the wind, not to mention on the wrong side of the law, they were sailing.
For Mags, unable to come to terms with the burden of her sexuality and the feelings she still harbours towards a certain person, life in Newhaven is a self-enforced solitary affair, revolving around her religion, the church and the library where she works. She does however, form a close bond with Freddy’s mother, Reenie, which is a pivotal part of the storyline further down the road.
For Karen, a failed relationship sees her single-handedly raising her teenage son Daniel, who has been taken on as an apprentice by Ricky and looks up to him as a role model. Karen has become embroiled in one of the more recent and nefarious activities run by the brothers from the cover of the dockyard and is determined to achieve the lifestyle she thinks she deserves, no matter what the cost and by whatever means at her disposal.
No one thinks to try and contact Freddy when her father Fred dies, however, Mags feels strongly that she should know when her mother Reenie is coming to the end of her life, so a vague one-line text is sent. Freddy uses the opportunity to both rush home in the hope of gaining forgiveness from her mother now she is no longer held as an emotional prisoner by Fred, as an opportunity to extricate herself from her own unhappy relationship with her partner and with hope in her heart that an old relationship might be resurrected given the change in societal attitudes over the course of the intervening years.
It is only when all four Mermaids are back on home turf that things quickly go awry. When the scale and depth of the many crimes which have been and are still being committed in the name of family are exposed, the situation takes on dangerous and for some, fatal consequences, with the body count quickly adding up. Toni finds her professional and personal lives merging together and out of control, despite her best efforts to remain objective and focussed on her job, so when her stress levels get to the point where her own, long supressed, mental health issues bubble to the surface and seek to threaten her position, it behoves her fellow investigator to guide her back on track. When the dust finally settles, for many life will never be the same again, but will there be the chance for any new beginnings? Even just a glimmer of hope for closure and happy endings might be good.
You’ll need to read the book for yourself, as that would be telling…
This highly textured, character driven, intense storyline, is written across varying timelines and from the perspectives of several different characters. However, the chapters are short and well signposted, so once you have worked out who’s who, which won’t take long, you are all set for a fast-paced race to the finish line, with never a dull moment along the way.
It quickly becomes apparent that just about everyone has, or has had, a secret to keep, no matter on which side of the thin blue line of the law you happened to be. The twists and turns in this storyline just kept on coming and even when I had guessed what a couple of them were ahead of time, there were still some slight deviations which threw me off track all over again. My suspect list had just about everyone’s name on it, although in all fairness, the police didn’t seem to have any more idea about what was going on than I, and it all came down to one ‘blue light’ moment of observation from Toni, to set in motion the collapse of this treacherous house of cards.
The author has included a realistic cross-section of the many modern social mores which beset so many families and extended friendships and which she deals with in a refreshingly honest, no-nonsense way: How can someone hide so piously behind their religious fervour, which from the outside looking in, makes them a devout, loving and forgiving person, the exact opposite of the actual truth? How someone can spend their entire life and the formative years of their children’s lives, bearing the consequences, both mental and physical, of the coercive, gas-lighting, bullying and violent nature of the revered head of the family, without fighting back? The sexual bias of a religious community, inured in their views and intransigent, until the tides of time begin to turn on a much wider level. The guilt of keeping oneself safe from harm, whilst leaving behind those you love, who you know will continue to suffer. The grief and underlying feelings of hatred and abandonment, at being that person left behind and the need to make someone suffer for your pain, even if that means operating below the radar of the law, drawing innocent people into your subterfuge thus causing them suffering, much as it might provide only some small level of recompense and satisfaction for your loss.
The multi-faceted characters are well-defined, fleshed out and given a strong voice with which to tell their story. However, to my mind, they are emotionally starved, which makes them unreliable, complex, volatile and manipulative. Never being truthful or honest to themselves, makes then uncompelling, not authentic and totally unrelatable. However, from author Lesley Thomson’s perspective, those strong feelings were probably just what she had hoped to achieve, so it was a job well done from my perspective.
For me, as an avid ‘armchair traveller’ who has never visited this particular corner of my own country, the Sussex port and fishing town of Newhaven and its immediate surrounding areas comprising the beautiful Downs and villages, was one I could track for myself and become completely immersed in, thanks to the attention to detail and descriptive qualities with which Lesley managed to paint the physical location of her story, offering a real sense of time and place that I could almost step into, with an atmosphere which lingered long after I had closed the final page. However, not being much of a seafarer (I am truly afraid of water and have never learnt to swim), the terror and fear of some of the scenes aboard the Powers fishing vessel, out in open water, at night, during a storm, had me on the edge of my seat.
The only small point I might question, is that surely Toni wouldn’t be allowed to investigate a case in which she was so deeply and personally involved, knowing both the victims and perpetrators as well as she does. However, in the scheme of things it probably isn’t so far fetched as to spoil anything and I was too busy on my own roller-coaster ride of emotions, trying to unravel my list of suspects and work out who did what to whom, where, why and when, that the thought never even occurred to me until I had finished reading.
A complimentary kindle download of this book for review, was made available by publisher Head of Zeus and supplied by NetGalley.
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion, and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However, some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well-deserved 5 out of 5 stars!
Thank you for taking the time to read my review, I appreciate your support