For Reasons Unknown | Michael Wood | 2015 | Killer Reads | 244p | Review copy | Buy the book
Twenty years ago Miranda and Stefan Harkness were brutally slaughtered in their Sheffield home while getting ready to go out to a local concert. Their eleven-year-old son Jonathan was the only witness but the shock rendered him mute. Many months were to pass before he spoke a word. No statement was ever taken from Jonathan and the murderer was never identified. The murder has become a curiosity, the subject of a bestselling book and an embarrassment to the local police force. Finally, after two decades, the house is about to be demolished, stirring up the interest of the public and media alike. It’s the perfect time for the police to reopen the case and they have just the detective to head up the investigation. DCI Matilda Darke has returned to work after nine months’ enforced absence caused by traumas in both her professional and private lives. She thinks she’s ready to come back. Her bosses aren’t so sure. A cold case will be the final test to see if Matilda is fit to serve.
But this is a cold case that is about to heat up. A man is found beaten to death and it’s not long before a connection is made to the Harkness case. Could it really be possible that the killer is back after such a long time? The demolition of the Harkness home has stirred up a whole can of worms. Whether Matilda Darke is up to dealing with it is another matter entirely. Meanwhile, we have Jonathan Harkness, now grown, spending his evenings hiding from the world, immersed in books, hardly any distance at all from the house where his life fell apart.
For Reasons Unknown is an impressive debut novel. While never letting the pace drop, the novel combines a fascinating mystery with the depiction of two very different but equally damaged personalities. The narrative moves between Matilda and Jonathan, allowing us into both their worlds, with Jonathan’s dependence on reading and isolation, and Matilda’s increasing reliance on alcohol and, whether she likes it or not, therapy. Both of these characters are intriguing. Neither is especially likeable – how could they be? They’re trying to keep their distance – but there are some especially effective moments: when Jonathan thinks that he may be able to allow himself to have a friend at last and when Matilda works her way through a panic attack by reciting the names of England’s Prime Ministers. Matilda’s struggle to return to be herself is a powerful and poignant theme and it’s not long before we’re egging her on.
But this is a character-rich novel. Aside from Matilda and Jonathan, my imagination was caught by Acting DCI Hales, a man with so much to prove, not least to himself. He spirals out of control, clearly deeply unhappy, and I thought this particularly well done.
The strong characterisation of For Reasons Unknown means that the murder mystery has quite a job to do to equal it. Happily, it succeeds. There was a relatively minor character who irritated me a little – the eccentric woman who lives in the flat above Jonathan – but otherwise I found myself completely caught up in the plot, finding it satisfyingly twisty and gripping from the start. Michael Wood certainly kept a step or two ahead of me the entire journey. For Reasons Unknown is a short, fast read and I found it an enjoyable one. It’s always a pleasure to read a strong debut and discover a new author. For Reasons Unknown leaves me in no doubt that there are exciting times ahead for Michael Wood and his readers.