Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Drowning Ground.
So many characters with so many secrets and deviant behaviors make this debut mystery by James Marrison a real winner. The authorís complex plotting, haunted characters, and gorgeous descriptions of winter in the quaint, bucolic Cotswold village of Moreton-in-Marsh are an absolute joy to read even as the action takes one suspenseful turn, then another and then another to an unexpected denouement. When it seems as though all the clues have been resolved, Marrison saves one last shocking revelation for the final chapter.
In The Drowning Ground, Marrison introduces a new type of embattled police detective: half Argentinean DCI Guillermo Downes and his new deputy, Sergeant Graves, who has just arrived from Oxford after being transferred to Moreton-in-Marsh under dubious circumstances. Both are called to an incident at the top of Meon Hill where,
amid the black hedgerows and ancient oak trees, ďthe cold shakes and rattles the teeth,Ē lies the blood-soaked, mutilated body of local landowner Frank Hurst. Someone has rammed a pitchfork through Hurstís throat.
While some in the village would say that Frank Hurst got what he deserved and are just happy that heís finally gone from their midst, the image of Hurstís broken body lying pale and vivid in the wet field becomes the catalyst for Downesí memories of an investigation five years earlier
in which Hurstís second wife, Sarah, cracked her head against the side of their swimming pool and drowned. There was lots of nasty gossip about it at the time, along with rumors that Hurstís teenage daughter, Rebecca, had suddenly disappeared, perhaps moved on or maybe even run off with ďsome fellaĒ to London.
The sound of the wind blowing through the trees on Meon Hill comes back to haunt Downes, and with it the image of the damp, used-up smell of Hurstís corpse.
The Hill itself (once the sight of an Iron Age settlement) is but a blurred shadow, peeling itself away from the darkness of the trees and Hurstís ancient house, the tall, silent Dashwood
Manor. Downes recalls how Rebecca Hurst was framed in the yellow light of her bedroom window toward the end of a long dry summer when her stepmother inexplicably slipped and hit her head.
Hurstís murder also causes Downes to revisit a case that was never solved: the disappearance of two local school girls. Downes is convinced that
their vanishing is somehow connected to a girlís flower pin found at the bottom of Hurstís backyard pool.
While Frank Hurstís death is ďforever nailed to the top of Meon Hill,Ē the man himself ironically becomes a conduit to the world of the living. A treacherous episode--a house fire--gives
the Detectives the vital clue theyíve been looking for, though Downes is almost brought to the breaking point. The clueís discovery is yet another building block in the string of coincidences, altering everything Downes and Graves have assumed about Hurstís death
and about Rebeccaís strange disappearance. In what turns out to be a bunch of mistaken suppositions, the Detectives search the rooms and the grounds of Dashwood House, trying to unlock its deathly secrets amid its caged darkness. Behind Dashwood Houseís locked doors,
thereís a feeling of time stretching out, of Hurstís lingering presence and the realization that, shortly before his death, Hurst encased himself in Dashwood, silently patrolling its corridors, white-faced and afraid.
The tight plot moves from the investigation of a pedophile ring, to Nancy,
Hurstís retired, non-committal housekeeper, to the deaths of two boys on an
ice-laden pond, to a private detective Hurst had enlisted to help find Rebecca. Marrison
builds his novel around DCI Downes, a brooding, sullen man certain of his intelligence but haunted by an only hinted at horrific Argentinean background that sometimes hinders him from reaching his full potential. Nevertheless, Graves, his new colleague, proves to be an exciting asset, spurring Downes on to explore what really happened to Gail and Elise, the two innocent young girls whose unexplained disappearance
shook this inward-looking community to its very core.
While characters are the strength of novels of this type, Marrison is no slouch at plotting. The story is complex, believable, and much darker then your usual British police procedural. Marrison is also impressive in his ability to juggle the different narrative threads and bring them to a satisfying conclusion. While the mystery at first tries to link the existence of the pedophile ring to the discovery of Hurstís murderer, for Downes,
the fate of Gail and Elise is a constant presence, eyeing him patiently from
somewhere deep within his mind. Perhaps the perpetrator is one of four men, or perhaps
was even Hurst himself?
Never predictable and never banal, Marrison writes with gusto in polished prose that reflects the insular, quaint world of Moreton-in-Marsh. Expertly setting us up for the next chapter in the series ( I canít wait!), Marrison writes lovingly of his new hero, Guillermo Downes, a
detective plagued by demons both internal and external yet determined to expose
murder most foul whenever and wherever he can.