Sunday, November 4, 2018
The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton: Reading Room Review
With The Craftsman, we see Sharon Bolton returning to her early stand-alones, where elements of the supernatural and Gothic are superbly woven into the story. Since I first fell in love with Bolton’s writing with those first books—Sacrifice, The Awakening, and Blood Harvest—I’m happy to once again experience the unconventional thrill of the mystical. The Craftsman is a book that Bolton says has been a part of her for a long time, as its setting in Lancashire, with Pendle Hill looming over both geographically and symbolically is the place of her birth and her formative years. She, in her words, is “a woman of Pendle,” and the women of Pendle are inextricably tied to the Pendle Witch Trials of the 1600s where nine women were executed as witches. It is this background of witches and rites that colors the story of The Craftsman and guides its course. It is also a story of counter forces that are interested in the darkness of the craft. So, while this book is about putting to rest a case of murdered teens, it is also a book about the strength of women and their ability to overcome suspicion and prejudice. The main character of Florence Lovelady embodies that strength and determination to survive.
It’s August 1999, and Assistant Commissioner Florence Lovelady, the highest-ranking female in the Met, is attending the funeral of a man whom she helped convict of the murders of three teenagers thirty years ago. Hoping for closure to this horrific case where the children were buried alive, Florence revisits the small town in Lancashire, England where she came face to face with an evil that still haunts her. But, closure is a slippery slope when secrets still beg to be opened. After the funeral, Florence visits the dilapidated house of the convicted child killer, and she discovers the past is not letting go so easily. Each child had been buried with a small clay likeness of themselves, and Florence finds such a likeness of herself on the property, something more recently placed there. It’s especially disturbing as it indicates that there is someone connected to the killings still at large.
Part two of the book goes back thirty years in time to August 1969, the story taking us through the events as experienced by WPC Florence Lovelady, when she was just beginning her time in police work and had joined the Sabden department in Lancashire. She has three big strikes against her. She’s not from the area, is better educated than the men with whom she works, and she’s a woman. Her co-workers resent her, but she’s also smart and will prove her worth. A third child in her early teens has gone missing in Sabden, and tensions are running high between citizens and the police, with no progress having been made on finding the children. When Florence is paired with Detective Constable Tom Devine on the case, after fourteen-year-old Patsy Wood vanishes, she gains his support for an idea to flush out some answers. Creating a reenactment on a local television program in which Superintendent Stanley Rushton is appearing results in information leading to the discovery of Patsy buried in a recently interred plot. Now, Florence is in the center of the case, more than holding her own with seasoned policemen. The search for the remaining two missing teenagers and trying to prevent additional abductions will lead Florence into dark, dangerous places before the confession from someone close to her daily zone of living occurs. Solving this case costs Florence and will keep costing her beyond her days as an investigating officer.
Part three of the book has the convicted killer’s last words to Florence haunting her. “I’ve kept them safe for thirty years. Now it’s your turn.” As Florence’s fears grow about the possibility that the wrong man might have paid for the children’s deaths, she once again puts herself in danger, as there are powerful people that want the case forgotten with the burial of Larry Grassbrook. But, Florence can’t ignore the nagging voice that calls for justice. She had planned on spending a night or two in the town that helped shape her career, with her fifteen-year-old son accompanying her, but loose ends aren’t Florence’s style. As more and more bizarre information comes to lights, it suddenly gets too personal to walk away from. Turning first to her former partner Tom and then to a particular group of friends in Sabden who had such meaningful and lasting influence on her life, Florence has no choice but to see it through to the end. Hold on though, you will not see the twist that’s coming.
The atmosphere of this book is expertly set, with nighttime visits to cemeteries and a local witch coven that meets on Pendle Hill and a method of death especially gruesome. It’s why there used to be bells on a grave that were rigged to a casket underground. The very saying “saved by the bell” may have originated in the bell connected caskets called safety coffins. Bolton’s use of “buried alive” as a murder method bumps this story up to hit you where your phobia dwells. The “supernatural” elements of the story are an integral part, flowing into the natural fabric of the place where the story was born. Bolton also gives us a police procedural that will satisfy those interested in the crime solving techniques of earlier times and present. The Craftsman is one of Sharon Bolton’s best works and is sure to garner much praise and awards in its wake.