The subtitle of this novel is “Buried but not Forgotten…” The story has a mysterious Prologue that recounts a nightmare. A woman is sleepwalking in the depths of a lightless winter night. She is making her way through a labyrinth of tangled hedges and sees a figure wearing a bull’s mask coming toward her. She is startled awake but thinks she is still dreaming. It is only at the last instant of her life as one of the bull’s horns pierces her heart she realises she is in fact awake. After that dramatic opening Chapter One calmly begins by introducing forty something, Detective Inspector Marjory Fleming who has been put in charge of keeping order within the area Galloway Scotland. Hoof and mouth disease has been discovered among the sheep and cattle on some of the farms in this very rural southwest corner of the country. As government officials sweep through the area ordering the animals on contaminated farms be destroyed some of the farmers and their families begin to protest and at times these protests turn into near riots. The task of keeping order is made particularly difficult for D.I. Marjory Fleming because many of the protesters are her friends and neighbours. Eventually the farm owned by Marjory and her husband Bill is visited by the authorities who order their entire flock of sheep be destroyed. Marjory remains stalwart throughout the ordeal even as her husband suffers a brief mental breakdown. In the midst of this turmoil, while burying the carcasses of the slaughtered animals, the skeletal remains of a young woman are uncovered. She appears to have been gored by a bull but there is no record of a missing person to help itentify her.
Then there is Laura Sonfeld, a young social worker living in New York who is struggling to get beyond a failed marriage. She is preparing to return to her home in England when she receives news of her mother’s death. She hastily returns to her childhood home, buries her mother and in the aftermath finds herself alone in the world without any close living relatives. Her father had died years before and her only sister, Dizzy, (pet name for Diana) disappeared without a trace. She submits a freelance article to a newspaper about her sister, which attracts the attention of Max Mason. He tells her that he knew Dizzy and that she had worked for his father on a farm in the county of; (where else but …?) Gallowy, Scotland some fifteen years earlier. Laura wrangles an assignment from the same newspaper that had printed her story, to go investigate this area where her sister was last seen.
So the author has planted the seeds for several stories to grow together. In addition she slowly fills out the background of each character to give them a presence in flesh and blood. Marjory, for example, is struggling to deal with a position of authority in a male dominated profession. She is also trying to balance her role as wife and mother. Barbara is struggling to pull herself together after leaving behind the life she had built in New York. Despite her training as a psychologist she finds it impossible to come to terms with her sense of loss.
It is interesting to go back to 2001 when hoof and mouth disease was in all the British headlines. Here in Canada I remember the CBC broadcasting horrifying images of the charred remains of cattle that had been culled to stop the spread of this disease. This would have been a very contemporary issue at the time Cold In the Earth was published, reading it this summer, fourteen years later, it takes on the feeling of an historic novel. Then I suppose Sherlock Holmes would have seemed a very modem character at the time Sir Author Cohen Doyle created him while today we look upon Mr. Holmes as a creature out of a Victorian/Edwardian costume drama.
I quite liked Marjory Fleming as a character, a strong woman with a sense of humour and a good measure of humanity, Despite her use of modern policing skills she was not overly convinced that the resources offered by psychology could help in her investigation and it is in her association with Barbara, that sways her opinion to a more favourable outlook. She eventually admits that psychology can bring new insight to an investigation as well as help heal the damage wrought in the after math of the destruction of many farmers’ livelihoods. Included in those who needed help was her husband Bill whose breakdown was brought on at the sight of his lambs being killed in front of their mothers.
It does not matter that you may be able to guess who killed the mysterious woman in the labyrinth. That woman, by the way, turns out to be Barbara’s sister; no surprise again. This is a character driven story and for the most part we, the readers, are interested in how they pull themselves together and get on with their lives. There is an interesting segue into the area of therianthropy, which itoday is used by psychologists to describe the delusional notion that one might transform oneself into an animal. This theme was developed in Greek mythology, long before the present day fascination with lycanthropy; the lore of the werewolf. (Here I have to stop and admire how perfectly maliable the English language is in its capacity to borrow from other languages in summing up any given crazy concept).
Interestingly, the novel also has a character who suffers from locked- in syndrome. The symptoms of this dreadful condition have been poignantly described in the now famous memoir the Butterfly and the Diving Bell, a best seller about ten years before this novel was published. The author found a clever way to have the character with this condition tie many of the loose ends together.
What makes this a good crime novel? The characters are well fleshed out and there are a dozen different story lines that are all resolved in the last chapter. This is one of those enjoyable page tunres that is perfect for an idle afternoon.