"For Reasons Unknown" Michael Wood
Two murders. Twenty years. Now the killer is back for more…
Twenty years ago, 11 year old Jonathan Harkness witnesses the brutal, cold blooded murder of his parents, Miranda and Stefan, which rendered him catatonic. There were multiple leads and suspects as the couple were wealthy and powerful. Stefan was engaged in a controversial cancer research programme involving animal testing so they were not unused to death threats and had many enemies. With too many lines of inquiry and no real evidence, the case remained unsolved. Twenty years later Jonathan remains a shadow; a frail, fearful, thin young man still traumatised from his childhood experience.
Chapter One brings us back to modern day and we meet the fantastic DCI Matilda Darke. After a nine month absence, Matilda returns to work to find she is no longer head of MIT but instead given the Harkness case to solve; their family house is about to be demolished and it seems timely that the case is reviewed for a final time. She is immediately frustrated by this, seeing the fact she has been given a cold case quite insulting and annoyed that it appears she will have to prove herself all over again. We discover she has had time off for depression following the death of victim during her previous investigation, but more dramatically, she has also recently lost her husband. Matilda is an intriguing character as she is struggling with her own issues of grief and guilt. She is flawed which makes her more interesting and more appealing. I found her a very likeable and believable character and was rooting for her from the outset.
Jonathan is an equally well drawn character. He is clearly unable to "break free from that night when he had stood in the doorway of his parent's bedroom and seen the nightmare unfold before him." He has "grown up in the shadows". He looks like a "strong gust of wind would snap him in half". He trusts no one and his whole emotional development has been stunted by his parents and what happened - but "even when his parents were alive he didn't accept their love." Jonathan surrounds himself with crime fiction as he tries to leave his own troubles behind him and "dream of detectives rather than the horror that haunts his real life". He returns to watch the demolition of his family home, hoping for a chance to put the ghosts to rest, but really this proves only to be the beginning of a new nightmare. Is Jonathan as innocent and as weak as he appears? Is his crippling social awkwardness hiding the potential for psychopathic behaviour or is he really just a tragic victim who deserves our pity and sympathy? Wood ensures you are never truly sure until the final few pages!
Further twists and layers are added to the story. Jonathan has a brother, Matthew, who went missing for three days after the murder of his parents. As the story continues we learn more about Matthew and how he was always able to "get away with murder" being the favoured son of his parents. The description that "to their faces, he had the smile of an angel but behind their backs his halo slipped and the smile changed to a lethal sneer" is unnerving and menacing. What was his real involvement? Why are he and Jonathan estranged? Where is he now? Will he and Jonathan be reunited through the demolition of their family home? Can Matilda track down Matthew to answer her questions about the murder 20 years ago when he was 15?
And then another murder takes place. Whoever killed the Harkness couple is clearly determined that the case should remain unsolved.
DCI Ben Hales, Acting Head of MIT, is a great character. Ambitious, greedy, jealous of Matilda and married to the daughter of the Chief Constable he is desperate for promotion; bitter that his calculated (and unhappy) marriage has not opened any doors for him. The tension between him and Matilda is palpable and their strained relationship cleverly adds another layer of tension and suspense to the novel. For me, he was a character you could love to hate! How far is he prepared to go to undermine Matilda? What lengths will he go to make an arrest and solve the crime before her? How ethical is he and can he be trusted not to abuse his position?
My other favourite character was Jonathan's neighbour, Maun Barrington. She is creepy! Lonely and hiding her own dark past, she has developed an obsession with Jonathan and is clearly deluded about their relationship. She is so quietly threatening and menacing. She reminded me of Annie Wilkes in Stephen King's "Misery". She has some brilliant lines and some of her thoughts are really unsettling and sent shivers down my spine! What exactly is her role in everything? What is she really capable of harming Jonathan with her increasingly psychopathic behaviour? Is she merely harmless or does her secret past present her as another possible suspect?
Wood is extremely good at giving a clear description of each character. They are easy to visualise and all vivid and realistic. He is also very good at creating intrigue with each character. For example, Matilda suffers from panic attacks and it is a while before the reason for these is revealed but her vulnerability suggests guilt, a buried past, an internal struggle which begs more questions from the reader. Conversations like "I'll screw up again.....I killed a child" also litter the pages with clues and suspense. Her back story has been meticulously worked out and Wood is able to reveal some of it in a controlled manner, adding further depth to the plot and indicating this could be the beginning of a successful series. Flawed but determined female detective leads are ever popular in crime fiction and in TV dramas at the moment and Matilda easily deserves recognition alongside these canny, shrewd women.
This book was a really enjoyable read. I was caught up in the story instantly. I liked that each key character could be a suspect - each has a motive, each has a past. I was definitely kept guessing as I raced towards the ending. The title "For Reason's Unknown" is a perfect choice as it really summarises the crux of the novel.
It is hard to accept that "For Reasons Unknown" is a debut novel. Wood's writing is accomplished, polished, confident and shows a secure ability to entrap the reader in a thrilling murder story. I am eager to read on and spend more time with Matilda Darke. I am looking forward to his second instalment, "Outside Looking In" which is available for preorder on Amazon at the moment for the bargain price of £1.99.
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