Keith Miles is probably best recognised by readers under the pen name of Edward Marston. He writes several well-received historical mysteries spanning the 11th century through to the 19th century. His website is www.edwardmarston.com
The book gets off to a terrific start. Thirteen very unlucky people fly over the vast moorland of the Northumberland National Park in a hot air balloon.
The pilot keeps it low so that his passengers can see the red squirrels in the woods. Unfortunately they see something else, something disturbing; a man smashing in the head of a young woman with a large stone. The balloon is low enough for them to see the man’s face. Among the passengers are two women in their late thirties. Jessica is a policewoman and her sister, Isabel, is a nun. Like the others, they’re horrified to have witnessed a murder.
When the killer looks up, he sees the balloon and realises that he’s in danger unless he can silence the witnesses. Setting off in pursuit of them, he manages to shoot the pilot and take off his head completely. Nobody else knows how to fly the balloon and, in any case, the pilot’s blood-soaked body is clogging up the compartment from which he handled the controls. The only way someone can get into the narrow compartment is if the corpse is thrown over the side of the basket. In spite of protests, he is duly hurled out. The volunteer [who takes over as pilot] pulls the wrong cord and they start to plummet alarmingly. Though he manages to save them from hitting the ground, he can’t guide the balloon past the electricity cable between two pylons. After crashing into it and causing a firework display, they end up in or near a large tree.
The killer, Patrick Faa, a deranged gypsy, has been following them on a quad bike. When he gets to the crash site, he counts the dead bodies. Someone is missing. The sole survivor is, in fact, one of the two sisters and his pursuit of her is relentless. As he tracks her, he is himself being tracked by Superintendent Ajax Maldonado and his wife, MoJo, a constable. Emergency protocols have kicked in and they race off across the Park. When they get to the balloon, they’re confronted with some hideous sights.
As the plot unravels, we meet people traffickers and the illegal immigrants who’ve sold body parts in order to pay them. Patrick Faa is involved in the trade as is a corrupt doctor with a distinguished career behind him. In a series of flashbacks, we also learn about the respective histories of the two sisters, and the reason behind the teenage Isabel’s decision to enter a Carmelite convent. While these scenes help to flesh out the two characters, however, they do slow down what is, for the most part, a driving narrative. Another flashback explains how Ajax and his future wife came to meet but they remain curiously under-developed until the later stages of the novel.
DEAD WOMAN WALKING is a compelling book with all the elements you expect of a top-notch thriller. It’s not until the very last scene that everything falls into place. However - reader beware! In setting up a major revelation, the author plays a neat confidence trick on you. It’s one to savour.