Sunday, January 6, 2019
The Wrong Boy by Cathy Ace: Reading Room Review
Since author Cathy Ace is responsible for my fascination with Wales, with her Wise Enquiries Agency series and her Cait Morgan series and her many FB posts about her home country of Wales, I was excited to receive an ARC for The Wrong Boy. This standalone novel (or maybe not standalone) is arriving with lots of great buzz, and I can confirm that it is everything the mystery/crime world is anticipating and more. The setting of the small coastal village Rhosddraig in southern Wales with its ancient stone formations and the Dragon's Back island twisting into the sea comes alive for readers under the masterful writing of Ace. The author makes it easy to become immersed in the Welsh culture of this village, which is both charming and sinister. I'm certain that sense of place will be high on readers' list of what makes this book so special.
Cathy Ace categorizes The Wrong Boy as a "psychological suspense thriller," and there is no doubt that it is that. Her finesse at building from the roots of village character life to a the chilling and thrilling story of a family's secrets tearing the village apart is the stuff of great storytelling. Metaphorically, it is the ocean tide, coming in and going out, and with each new appearance on the shore, there are new clues as to what lies hidden in its depths. That there are twists and turns to keep the reader guessing the outcome is a reading experience of pure joy, and not coming close to what the final truth is only adds to the enjoyment.
What brings us to the picturesque village of Rhosddraig and eventually to The Dragon Head's Pub, where three generations of women reside in the misery of their secrets, is the discovery of bones, recent bones, on the hilltop where the derelict RAF listening station stand. DI Evan Glover, two days away from retirement, is called on from Swansea to visit the site and determine if those bones are talking. Glover and his able assistant, DS Liz Stanley, find an unusual pile of determined destruction in the smashed skull with no teeth and charred bones, which are covered by stones in a cairn-like structure. With reports of a fire being seen emanating its glow from that site on a recent November night, DI Glover knows that this investigation will be a lengthy one and will last well beyond his retirement. However, his involvement won't end, as the boy who is eventually accused seems to be "wrong," and Glover's sense of justice won't allow him to put it aside.
The Dragon Head's Pub is the village gathering spot for gossip and a pint, and its proprietor is Nan Jones, an elderly woman made of steel and spite. Her daughter, Helen, and Helen's daughter, Sadie, also reside and work at the pub, Helen being full-time and Sadie working after school. Sadie is in love with the accused boy, Aled Beynon, and has kept her relationship with him secret from everyone, including her mother and grandmother. Nan, Helen, and Sadie have tumultuous relations among themselves, and each one holds secrets from the others that are revealed in their narratives that Ace has divided the book into. Nan is a particularly nasty piece of work, always critical of her daughter, unimpressed by her granddaughter, and possessing a vicious tongue towards those with whom she has quarrels in the village. In spite of Nan's disgruntled nature, their pub is a popular spot, and it becomes even more so with a murder to solve.
The pace of the story is one of the great realistic aspects of it, as the investigation and build-up of the drama evolves over a period of months. From identifying the bearer of the bones to uncovering village connections to him is a time-consuming process, and while this story isn't a police procedural, it does give credence to the importance of it and allows the reader to see some of what is involved. And while the process is taking place, we are gaining insight into the main characters of this tale. Through the settling into retirement for Evan and Betty to the running of a busy pub, characters are revealed in their basic nature and desires. But, all the while suspense is building as more knowledge about the victim and suspect are uncovered. It is quite possible that you will stay up half the night reading to the end, because, well, it's that grand of a journey and finale.
The format for telling the story is through the author giving each main character a voice, where they present their perspectives and knowledge. Retired DI Evan Glover and his wife Betty, who we learn has a connection to the main players, too, are my favorites. They are genuinely a loving couple who support each other's interests and together prove to be an astute detecting team. The three females of The Dragon's Head are each given their narrative voices, too, with Nan, Helen, and Sadie showing the depth of deceit and horror of the lies upon which their lives are built. Through the eyes of these five characters we get to know others in their lives and crucial to the story line. And, as it is a psychological thriller, we should be aware that their views are not always reliable, either by choice or ignorance. Like the fog the villagers call the Dragon's Breath, the path is not always clear. As the end nears and the fog clears, my jaw dropped in surprise, and I consider Cathy Ace's final twist and disclosure one of the best I've ever had the pleasure to be gobsmacked by.
As I mentioned in the beginning of my review, I received an Advanced Reader Copy of The Wrong Boy, and I can only add to my honest review that this is a book sure to be up for awards and one you don't want to miss.