Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of the series starring journalist Philip Dryden. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a body of work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’
Here’s just six things I never expected to find inside Mo Hayder’s latest novel – Poppet. A dog called Stewie that I’d happily adopt, and I hate dogs. A control-freak called Melanie Arrow. A completely persuasive account of what it would be like to roll your flesh off its bones and pile it in the corner. A pyschiatric ward full of people more interesting than the ones in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest. Aunt Patience’s recipe for scrambled eggs and fennel. And a terrifying journey, in a wet suit, down into a bottomless gravel pit, and then up through a stone ‘chimney’ into a hidden cave. It’s not that you need to expect the unexpected with Hayder, it’s that you can’t conceive of what the unexpected might be.
This book is bereft of cliché. Even the usual progression from killing, to inquiry, to closure is subverted. We start with two crimes – well, one is a crime, the other appears to be a figment of some very disturbed minds. On one hand DI Jack Caffery is looking for the corpse of a missing woman. He finds out soon enough why he isn’t going to find it, but it’s how he finds out that’s a bit of show stopper. Meanwhile something is terrorising the inmates of the Amberley Secure Unit. Here our hero, AJ (Average Joe) is the senior pyschiatirc nurse. The doctors seem to think the unit is prone to intermittent outbreaks of hysteria in which the patients imagine they are being terrorised by an incubus (a squatting devil-like creature). AJ notes that this supernatural phenomenon appears to like operating in the dark, as the lights always fail before an appearance. The creature, known as The Maude to the patients, appears to have what the police like to call “previous”.
AJ turns to DI Caffery when he begins to suspect there is a killer stalking the half-lit corridors of the secure unit. And boy do they need help. They’ve just released a psychotic killer into the community, and to have lost track of him to boot. Whoops. There is a lot of interest in what this patient might have done to get himself locked up in the first place. When we find out we all wish we hadn’t asked. Our runaway is called Isaac and he collects poppets – little voodoo-like handmade dolls. I’l stop there, before I tell you what’s often in the dolls, just in case you’re approaching mealtime. Big question – is Isaac The Maude ? The denouement to this macarbre storyline plays out in the secure unit and exhibits Hayder’s craft at its height. Almost nothing is as it seems to be. If you think you know what is going on, then you don’t. AJ’s a wonderful character and I was sorry to lose his company when I turned the last page. The whole thing is breath-taking fun, with a terrific nasty edge. First class.