|PATH OF NEEDLES
Alison Littlewood (www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk)
Jo Fletcher Books (www.jofletcherbooks.com)
PC Cate Corbin is one of the first officers on the scene when the body of a young girl is discovered in rural West Yorkshire. Seeing something familiar in the way the body has been posed – the gown, mirror, partially-eaten apple – Cate is immediately reminded of the tale of Snow White. Her insight earns her a place on the investigation, and she brings Alice Hyland, an expert on fairy tales, on board as a consultant. When a second body is found, this one bearing the more obvious cape of Little Red Riding Hood, it becomes clear that Cate’s instincts were right. Both scenes contain elements found in obscure variants of the well-known tales and suspicion immediately falls on Alice.
Following last year’s stunning debut, A Cold Season, Alison Littlewood moves into the realms of straight police procedural with her second novel, Path of Needles. It’s a surprising move, and I will admit to being slightly dubious through the early sections of the book. But, as with its predecessor, there is a pervasive sense of creepiness that sets it apart, makes it difficult to slot into one genre pigeonhole or another.
At the centre of the story are Cate Corbin and Alice Hyland, two very different women who form an instant friendship upon meeting. Alice has been visited by a strange blue bird that she believes is, in some way, related to the deaths that she has been called upon to help with. Cate, at first a staunch defender of the other woman, soon begins to call her own judgement into question as she grows more suspicious of Alice’s motives, ultimately viewing her as a prime suspect as the fairy tale references grow ever more obscure with each body found. The novel’s strength lies in the characterisation of these two women: on the one hand, the ditzy, mysterious Alice, whose actions make her a suspect in the mind of the reader from the outset; on the other Cate, insecure and fickle, her relationship with Alice driven, in large part, by her relationship with her boss, and her constant need to impress him.
The fairy tale references, the strange blue bird that turns up from time to time – and plays an important part in the novel’s denouement – and the rural, wooded setting all combine to give the reader a sense of unease, a lurking dread that there might be more to this than a series of related murders, something sinister waiting in the wings. This is what I want from an Alison Littlewood novel and Path of Needles delivers in spades. It’s where she excels, those elements of quiet horror that insinuate their way into the mind of the reader to unsettle and unnerve. Littlewood uses the West Yorkshire countryside to her advantage, and the deeply embedded sense of place that comes as part and parcel of the story is as important as the characters who drive the story along.
At first mildly disappointing (“ugh, another police procedural; where’s the horror?”), Path of Needles quickly sets itself apart from the run-of-the-mill police drama. Very different to A Cold Season, it does share some of the themes and elements from the earlier novel: strong central female characters and the beauty of rural England being the two most obvious. The disappointment disappears quickly enough, as we find ourselves sucked into the mystery. Legitimate suspects abound, including Alice herself, and Littlewood does a fine job of keeping the reader on their toes until the surprising final revelation.
Alison Littlewood’s second novel serves to cement her position as one of Britain’s finest living horror authors, while proving that she can also turn her hand to a credible whodunit. Well-researched and impeccably-plotted, Path of Needles will keep you turning pages long after bedtime while making you wish you’d stuck to daylight hours. If you like your fiction dark and uncomfortable, then this is definitely one for you. I can’t recommend book or author highly enough.