Book review: Blood Harvest by S. J. Bolton

Blood Harvest
S J Bolton
Bantam, 2010.

Imagine a tiny, isolated Lancashire village on the edge of the moors. There are two churches, one a ruined abbey and one recently re-opened. There’s a massive crypt under the churches that connects them. There is a graveyard whose wall, as the book opens, collapses in the heavy rain, causing the ground to sink and graves to open up. In one of these graves, that of a little girl, the bodies of two other young children emerge. The vicar, a handsome young chap, almost faints.

That’s the setting for Blood Harvest, which after this lurid opening flashes back to the previous few months, introducing us to a family, the Fletchers, who have just moved into a new house built on the ground that used to be part of the abbey, and hence overlooks it and the graveyard. The Fletchers have three young children, the eldest of whom, Tom, is bullied by lads at his local school and sees visions of a young girl among the graves and fields. Is he imagining her or not?

Harry is the recently arrived vicar, who is getting to know the community and encouraging them to attend his newly opened church. He rapidly finds that the village is in effect owned by one family, and finds himself taking part in various traditional activities under its auspices, which seem harmless enough but have an unsettling edge to them. Evi is a psychiatrist who is treating Gillian, an unstable young woman whose daughter was burned to death in a house fire a couple of years ago, and who now spends her time wandering the moors looking for the little girl – whose body, she tells Evi, was never found. Gillian acts as a link between Harry and Evi, threatening to destroy the budding romance between them. About half way through the book, we arrive in time at the events described in the beginning, when it is obvious that murders have taken place. The rest of the novel is about the police investigation as well as Harry and Evi’s attempts to uncover what happened and who is responsible.

Although I am not a fan of “sinister villager” books, especially those with a possible supernatural element in which apparently sane people like Harry constantly feel they are being watched in the vestry, I can highly recommend Blood Harvest as a very exciting read. S J Bolton cleverly weaves her web of suspicions and paranoia, drawing the reader inexorably in to the concerns and emotions of her vividly drawn main characters, as Alice Fletcher fears for her daughter’s safety – but is she worried about the child who is really in danger? Will Evi believe in Tom’s mysterious “friend” before tragedy strikes? Are various strange events practical jokes gone wrong or nasty warnings? The creepy atmosphere of the moors, as well as the abandoned church and other buildings in the area, are used to excellent effect to increase the tension. I was waiting with bated breath to find out whether the author was going to be able to pull all the strings together in the end into a credible conclusion or whether she’d cheat- and she does indeed pull it off – although I have to say it was not too difficult to work out the identity and motivation of the criminal (partly due to a dearth of potential suspects). Despite the rather overblown climax, this novel is quite a storytelling achievement, and one I very much enjoyed reading.

I borrowed this novel from the library.

Read other reviews of Blood Harvest at: Euro Crime (Michelle Peckham), The Observer (Alison Flood), The Independent (Barry Forshaw), A Work in Progress, Lost in Books.

S J Bolton’s website.
S J Bolton at Euro Crime, including reviews of her earlier books (Sacrifice and Awakening), and her latest novel Now You See Me. (These books are individual novels, not a series. My review of Sacrifice, the author’s debut novel, is here.)