THE CRAFTSMAN by Sharon Bolton
Minotaur Books; 10/16/18
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: a perfect Halloween read for the psychological suspense fan
Have you read a crime novel by Sharon Bolton yet? If not, make THE CRAFTSMAN your entree into this prolific UK-based author’s world. As a newcomer to Bolton’s work myself, I can safely say I have been missing out. Told primarily through an extended flashback, THE CRAFTSMAN immerses readers in the case that defined protagonist Florence Lovelady’s career as a police officer in the small village of Lancashire, England: a series of twisted child murders. THE CRAFTSMAN is just about everything you could hope for from a fall thriller: it’s deliciously chilling, rich in atmosphere, and laced with a touch of the supernatural. Add into this already-appealing mix a fiercely independent female protagonist and a decades-old mystery, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for fall reading success. Now, I consider myself quite skeptical when it comes to crime novels with supernatural elements, but my skepticism was, in this case, totally unnecessary. Much like the ghost stories of Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir, Sharon Bolton’s newest thriller gracefully blends earthly and unearthly scares. The result? A suspense novel that feels all the more immersive for the unique world built within its pages. In short, I savored every page of this spine-tingling mystery, and highly recommend THE CRAFTSMAN for your October (and Halloween, in particular!) reading lists.
Florence Lovelady's career was made when she convicted coffin-maker Larry Grassbrook of a series of child murders 30 years ago in a small village in Lancashire. Like something out of a nightmare, the victims were buried alive. Florence was able to solve the mystery and get a confession out of Larry before more children were murdered, and he spent the rest of his life in prison.
But now, decades later, he's dead, and events from the past start to repeat themselves. Is someone copying the original murders? Or did she get it wrong all those years ago? When her own son goes missing under similar circumstances, the case not only gets reopened... it gets personal.
Before we dig into the specifics of THE CRAFTSMAN, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the big picture of this book—the overarching qualities that tie it together, and make it such fun to read. When I think of fall reading material, the kind of book I most want to spend time with is a book exactly like THE CRAFTSMAN: a read that is slow-burning yet propulsive, richly atmospheric, and possessing that certain something that makes you want to spend an entire afternoon lost in its pages. Set against the backdrop of small-town England, Bolton’s story of long-buried secrets springs to life like something out of your favorite scary movie. This is very much a book set in the real world; our protagonist is a police officer, and the series of crimes she investigates is very much “real,” too. But there’s something uncanny about this town, and Bolton masterfully weaves traces of this uncanniness throughout her deliciously chilling mystery to fantastic effect. THE CRAFTSMAN is all the more immersive for the author’s willingness to blur the lines of reality. In Sharon Bolton’s expert hands, this suspense story leaps off the page.
And now, on to the details. Let’s start with the most fundamental part of this story: its structure. Perhaps the most surprising piece of this book to me was, in fact, the way in which its story is laid out. THE CRAFTSMAN begins with a harrowing scene: in the present day, Florence returns to Lancashire for the funeral of the coffin-maker she arrested decades earlier. His crime? Burying children alive in his coffins. While revisiting sites from her time as a resident of the town, Florence makes a disturbing discovery - one which suggests the events of the past might be repeating themselves. Readers are then drawn into the past in an extended flashback, one which takes them through the dark crimes that prompted Florence to arrest the coffin-maker in the first place. And what a flashback it is. Readers will be so thoroughly swept up in the events of Florence’s past that the present will become almost an afterthought, in the best possible way. The past is where the real meat of the story lies; it’s here that we learn of the gruesome crimes central to this story; it’s here that we experience the visceral claustrophobia of the killers’ victims, buried alive in ornate coffins; it’s here that we get to know the book’s leading lady—and come to discover what a complicated, mysterious town she is living in. Flashbacks can be hit-or-miss, but this one is superb.
In both past and present day, Bolton’s protagonist Florence Lovelady is stellar. Through the character of Florence, Bolton puts under the microscope the sexism faced by women in law enforcement—but she does so in a way that’s just as somber as it is righteously entertaining. As one of the few female police officers in her department, Florence faces a stomach-turning amount of discrimination from her male colleagues - a facet of this story made all the more compelling by its unfortunate plausibility. When children begin disappearing from Lancashire, Florence finds herself tangentially involved in the investigation. (Not central to it, though, because she is young and a woman.) Through dogged police-work and her own superb instincts, she makes a discovery that becomes essential to the case… and her male colleagues are none too happy to be outsmarted by her. Florence isn’t one to give up, though, and readers will find themselves squarely in her corner as she risks her own reputation and bucks protocol in pursuit of justice for the missing children. And the deeper Florence travels into this twisted series of crimes, the more irrevocably her life will be changed. By making her story’s protagonist a police officer, Bolton pulls off a neat little genre-bending trick: she gives readers the building blocks for a standard police procedural, but she uses them as a springboard for something quite unconventional. Because this isn’t an ordinary town, and the means and motives behind this disturbing series of crimes are far darker - and stranger - than both Florence and the reader could imagine.
And now, the perennial question: is THE CRAFTSMAN still a convincing and authentic crime novel, even if it also involves the paranormal? I won’t discuss this portion of the story in too much depth; more than half the fun of THE CRAFTSMAN lies in watching Bolton peel back the many layers of both the unearthly and earthly thrills that make up this gripping suspense tale. But, suffice it to say, the paranormal components of the book do work quite well in tandem with its central mystery. My personal litmus test for crime novels with supernatural elements is as follows: does the ultimate solution to the book’s mystery rely on those supernatural elements? If yes, I can practically always guarantee the book won’t work for me; I like my mysteries to be solved by logic, not paranormal activity. If the answer to that question is no, however, I’ve become increasingly open-minded—and THE CRAFTSMAN is a perfect example of just why I have become more open. Though otherworldly components do become an essential part of this story, there is a very human, earthly final solution to the book’s chilling mystery—and it’s this balance that made THE CRAFTSMAN work for me. If you’re totally opposed to the supernatural in your crime novels (which is perfectly okay!), you’ll want to skip over THE CRAFTSMAN; if, however, you’re open to a few paranormal thrills this fall, this book is well worth your time.
THE CRAFTSMAN is the perfect Halloween read for the psychological suspense fan. This isn’t all-out horror by any means; it’s a procedural, tweaked and adapted to incorporate a chilling, otherworldly atmosphere and a healthy dose of psychological suspense. With a compelling female protagonist, palpable tension and claustrophobia, and an utterly immersive atmosphere, THE CRAFTSMAN will make an excellent addition to your fall reading list. Highly recommended.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Minotaur Books (October 16, 2018)
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