Black Wood – SJI Holliday

Black WoodAnd so, stumbling out of the trees wearing a lumpy balaclava, arrives the Black Wood Blog Tour on its final stop this week. Susi –- sorry, SJI –- Holliday’s debut novel reminds us why any reasonable person would get the fuck out of a small town as soon as possible.

The blurb is not going in there alone:

Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun.

But what is the connection between Jo’s visitor and the masked man? To catch the assailant, and to give Jo her long-awaited justice, Gray must unravel a tangled web of past secrets, broken friendship and tainted love. But can he crack the case before Jo finds herself with blood on her hands?

Village life, with its complex web of relationships and lifelong resentments, has powered the imaginations of crime writers down the years and Black Wood is a worthy addition to this Rural Gothic genre. It’s a pacey read which picks up speed, hurtling towards an inevitably violent conclusion.

The town of Banktoun is the star of the show. Holliday writes about her fictional Scottish backwater with gusto and imbues the sleepy high street with a gleeful menace. It’s a claustrophobic and crowded place. Everyone knows your business, sometimes before you even know it yourself. Chances are, you’ve probably slept with half of these people. Everyone has dark secrets and someone — it could be someone you know all too well — is pulling on a balaclava and menacing women.

Banktoun’s collection of damaged and twisted individuals makes Twin Peaks look like Ambridge, and makes you crave for the blessed anonymity of the metropolis. Thank the lord, then, for sturdy copper Sergeant Davie ‘The Modfather’ Gray, who provides a much-needed moral compass in this oppressive village, with its complex web of relationships and lifelong resentments and two fish ‘n’ chip shops.

The two timelines that power the narrative — the incident in Black Wood and the modern-day stalking — ultimately don’t really gel to my mind, and the story can get cluttered with characters and subplots, but there’s a lot to like here. Holliday is terrific at the psychological stuff — how you can wake up one morning to discover that everyday life has flipped into something sinister and wrong.

Jo’s memories surge to the surface and become entangled with unresolved feelings and relationships, and festering secrets. Jo is a terrifically damaged heroine, just on the right side of likeable, and her pursuit of the man she believes attacks her and Claire as a child feels true and urgent.

The writing is often very good in Black Wood — Holliday has an eye for telling small details about people and situations, the character portraits are really heartfelt — and make sure you stay till the bitter end because there’s a nasty final chapter twist that really hits the sweet spot.

Many thanks to Black And White Publishing for the review copy. I’m delighted to say that Susi Holliday will be giving us the intel on her writing, and small town life — look out for that coming up soon!

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6 thoughts on “Black Wood – SJI Holliday

  1. crimeworm

    Great review, as ever! I know all about small towns – I live in one! Although I think we can boast FOUR chippies (that’s what you get for living in a port!) The savings are currently being gathered to GTFO! I bought this, but I’ve got so many ARCs it’ll need to wait until I’ve time to read a book of my own choosing – I’m looking forward to it though!

    Reply
      1. crimeworm

        I know – don’t you ever just feel like saying, “To hell with publication dates! I’m going to read something I’ve had for ages!” I know it’s a pretty out-there, rock’ n’roll way of thinking, but I’m sure there’s still a bit of rebel in us somewhere! (I’m not doing anything REALLY crazy, though, like throwing books out of hotel windows…)

      2. Crime Thriller Fella Post author

        To hell with it, power to the people — I’m going to read that book that’s been gathering dust on my shelf that I bought about three years ago… just after I’ve read these half dozen others that nice publicist sent me.

      3. crimeworm

        I’ve got loads of books I’ve had for 3+ years I’ll PROBABLY never read but am loathe to get rid of – just in case! There’s nothing better than a nice new shiny book that’s just came through the letterbox though! I’m not that keen on NetGalley; once books disappear into my Kindle they’re sometimes never seen or heard of again…

  2. Pingback: The Intel: SJI Holliday | Crime Thriller Fella

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