When you grow up in the shadow of Lancashire’s brooding Pendle Hill, the ‘dark side’ must never seem too far away.
Award-winning author Sharon Bolton (previously S. J. Bolton), who was born a few miles from the old market town of Darwen, has certainly absorbed some of this area’s forbidding beauty and notorious history into her psyche, judging from a critically acclaimed writing career which has seen her pen some of the most bone-chilling crime books ever written.
In 2014, Bolton was awarded the CWA Dagger in the Library for her entire body of work which has included Sacrifice, made into a Hollywood film starring Radha Mitchell, Rupert Graves and David Robb, Little Black Lies and the Lacey Flint series.
But The Craftsman returns to home territory – more specifically the Ribble Valley village of Sabden – for her most audacious and blood-curdling crime thriller yet… a hauntingly original story woven with menace, murders truly most foul, and a supernatural thread that winds all the way back to the infamous 17th century Pendle witch trials.
In August of 1999, on the hottest day of the year, high-flying police officer Assistant Commissioner Florence Lovelady returns to Lancashire to attend the funeral of Larry Glassbrook, the convicted murderer that she arrested 30 years earlier and who has now died in jail.
As a rookie WPC in the summer of 1969, Florence had lodged with master carpenter and funeral director Larry at his rural home near Sabden while she was stationed in the area. The family’s eccentricity appealed to Florence’s own sense of ‘difference’ as a ‘posh’ southerner living in the north.
It is while she is there that police start investigating the case of 14-year-old Patsy Wood who has been missing for two days and is the third teenager to disappear in as many months. Struggling to fit in, Florence is sent to investigate an unlikely report from schoolchildren claiming to have heard a voice screaming… a voice coming from deep within a recent grave.
It was a distressing and difficult case which ended when Larry Glassbrook confessed to imprisoning his victims, alive, in the coffins he had made himself. Clay effigies, known locally as ‘clay pictures’ since the days of the Pendle witches, were found entombed with their bodies.
Back in the present, as she tries to lay her ghosts to rest and still haunted by her vivid imaginings of the victims’ suffering, Florence is drawn back to the Glassbrooks’ now derelict house, close to Pendle Hill, and is horrified to discover another clay effigy – one that perfectly matches herself.
Does this mean that the killer is still at large, did she get it wrong all those years ago… or is there something much more menacing at play?
Bolton is on terrific form as she makes this memorable pilgrimage back to her northern roots and a landscape that witnessed the chilling Moors Murders and the reign of the Yorkshire Ripper, and became the killing ground of Harold Shipman and Donald Neilson.
In The Craftsman, she ventures into the wild countryside and ribbon valleys which nestle amongst those dark satanic mills for a chilling, thrilling blend of crime mystery and disturbing gothic horror that harnesses local legend and history, and touches the raw nerve of our deepest, darkest fears.
But while the terror is palpably real and the tension grips like a pitiless vice, Bolton’s descriptive prose is a thing of beauty as past deeds and present threats merge into a harrowing, spine-tingling tale of death, deceit, despair and the worst kind of human depravity.
Unpredictable, unsettling, utterly addictive and with a twist in the tail that will leave you gasping, The Craftsman is unique, bold and brilliant… but best read before dark!
(Trapeze, hardback, £12.99)