Hayder has been on my radar for a while, a writer who bravely treads what is usually male-dominated territory in the horror/thriller genre. Hayder brings a uniquely female perspective—that is to say, a precisely-turned edge--to the malevolence in this particular tale of incipient horror and obsessive behavior. Returning to an unresolved drama between Jack Caffery of Bristol’s Major Crime Investigation Team and Sergeant Flea Marley of the dive unit over the resolution of the Misty Kitson disappearance from a rehab clinic in an earlier novel, Caffery is haunted by his inability to give the girl’s grieving mother closure. But the crux of Poppet is a mystery at a Bristol asylum, Beechway Psychiatric Unit, where mental patients are caught up in hysterical rumors of the return of “The Maude”--a tiny figure stalking victims at night to torment them, driving some even to harm themselves.
Night supervisor AJ Le Grande, sleep-deprived and anxious for the welfare of the patients, has been filling in shifts for the last-minute sick calls of staff unwilling to work at night. Though exhausted, AJ is determined to get to the root of the problem, especially after the recent death of another patient, the second to die of self-harm. The stories of the tiny malevolent creature have undermined the security of the hospital. Strange sightings, terrified patients and half-finished nightmares make each long night a test of endurance. Night on the wards is silent, as though waiting for the next victim.
In short, alternating chapters, Hayder manipulates her characters and their conflicts, which eventually merge at the hospital after Le Grande contacts Caffery with his concerns. With Misty Kitson’s mother back in town, holding interviews and putting pressure on a flagging investigation, Jack is frustrated by his inability to at least give the grieving mother a body to bury. Because he knows Flea can help him bring some closure to the case, he is forced to share sensitive information that may put an end to whatever potential that relationship might have. Meanwhile, back at Beechway, not everything is difficult for AJ, who suddenly finds himself in a romantic relationship with the beautiful director of the hospital, Melanie Arrow. The formerly unattainable Melanie offers the harried night supervisor some respite from the problems plaguing the hospital.
Unfortunately, even that sweet bliss is short-lived when the threat follows Melanie home. AJ believes he has finally found the source of the problems: a patient who has been released. Gathering information about Isaac Handel, who murdered his parents as a boy, AJ discovers the poppets Handel made while at Beechway—doll-sized replicas of people, even one of Melanie. Without confiding to Melanie, AJ requests that Caffery investigate the activities at Beechway, the pieces of an ugly picture suddenly falling together for both the detective and the night supervisor.
Poppet is filled with a colorful array of characters: the staff at Beechway, including AJ (whose initials stand for “Average Joe”); AJ’s garrulous aunt Patience, who shows her affection with an abundance of food; the frightened patients, who shiver behind locked doors at night; a boy who fashions dolls in the likenesses of those who are important to him; and the lonely Penny Pilson, who lives alone at the Old Mill, sells homemade jam and keeps her secrets to herself. Hayder gets inside the heads of her characters, from the patients to AJ and Melanie, from Caffery to the elusive Flea Marley, bringing them all to life as “The Maude” prepares to strike again. While fears of the impossible lurk and a tiny figure skitters from room to room, a twisted mind revels in the spiraling madness it has created.