The Underneath

Written by Melainie Finn

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.

The Underneath
Two Dollar Radio
RRP: £19.20
Released: May 15, 2018

After harrowing experiences in modern Africa Kay Ward, a war correspondent, retires to find solace in family life, renting a farmhouse in Vermont with her children, Freya, aged eight, and five-year-old Tom. Husband Michael is called away on business— although there is little doubt in Kay’s mind that he’s accompanied by his mistress. However the marriage is rocky so mistresses are of little account; apart from the exigencies of coping with two small children, Kay is now free to write a book.

As might be expected in a crime novel, the idyll of rural New England, with its quaint steepled churches, enchanting woods, friendly neighbours, bake-offs, all this is quickly revealed as a sham. If Kay is haunted by atrocities on another continent she finds that conditions in Vermont are different only in degree, that exploitation and corruption have not been left behind. To start with, here there is a crime wave involving heroin, then her landlord has disappeared and neighbours are taciturn when not overtly hostile concerning his whereabouts and that of his wife and children. There is shocking abuse: of women and children, of animals, of the environment.

Kay sees it all through the eyes of an investigative journalist and, determined to find what has happened to her landlord and his family, in exploring the house, she discovers a secret crawl space in her bathroom with the latch on the inside and childish threats scratched on the wall in black marker ink, suggesting that someone with a distorted mind had shut him or herself within.

Some alleviation of impending disaster is signalled by the arrival of a logger, Ben Comeau, although himself beset by problems past and present. He has burdened himself with the charge of a doomed junkie only in order to save her mute and traumatized son, whom he dreams of detaching from his appalling mother and  flying with him  to a new life in Australia. Ben is the strong man: a blundering mammoth who makes all the wrong moves which providentially achieve some kind of resolution even if the reader’s jaw must drop in appalled astonishment at the climax.

This is a graphic story to be read at one sitting, skimming the nasty bits. The fact that it’s well-written makes  it too credible. The dialogue appears correct to the last syllable of rural colloquialism (American and African) and the characters fit it like a glove. There are shades of morality but only one person is all bad and even there one can follow if not condone the twisted logic of the terrible General Christmas under whose rule there was every kind of atrocity from the  torture and gang rape of women and children to the murder of children by children. But it is the latter that is almost balanced by Kay’s Freya and Tom: a couple of articulate and highly intelligent young animals that, with their formidable mother, try so hard to make us forget the real horrors of modern war that haunt Melanie Finn’s timely fiction.

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