Arrow | 2017 (20 April) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
Twenty years ago Isla Bell’s life changed forever when she found the remains of three murdered people propped against Hadrian’s Wall, as if they had chosen to spend forever sitting beside its stones. More murders were to follow but the small community of Briganton was finally able to let out its breath when the murderer was caught and put away by none other than Isla’s detective father, Sergeant Eric Bell.
Twenty years on, Sergeant Bell is now a Superintendent, while Isla is a forensic psychologist, attempting to identify from medical scans what it is that makes a serial killer keep on killing. One of her subjects is the infamous killer on the wall but even outside work she cannot escape the memories of the past. Briganton is such a small village, everyone knows everybody else – the innocent and the guilty. And then it happens again. All these years later, with the murderer locked away, another body is found against the Wall. And then there’s another…
Emma Kavanagh is one of those authors whose books I long to read. She writes unusual, distinct and clever crime mysteries, each standing alone, asking questions about identity and relationships, to one another, to communities and to the places in which one lives. With The Killer on the Wall, the author has done it again. She has created yet another completely immersive and addictive crime thriller that is driven by its people and its location.
The narrative moves between stories, showing us the devastating impact of these crimes on Briganton by shifting perspectives. Most of the time is spent moving between Isla and Mina, a detective who leads the investigation into this new set of murders. While I enjoyed Isla, Mina is by far my favourite character in the book. She constantly fascinates and intrigues, not least because of her complicated relationship with her boss, Superintendent Eric Bell.
Briganton is an extraordinarily close village, edging up against the defining barrier of Hadrian’s Wall. There’s a sense that this is a place that has been around for millennia and, just as the Wall has been here for so long, so too has the evil of man. Briganton is more than notorious; it is believed to be cursed. And yet people like Isla and Mina cannot live away from it. People might leave it for a while but they always return. Such is the force of the location in this intense novel.
My one issue with the novel is in some ways a side-effect of one of its strengths – this small and remote community is all we have. While that gives Killer on the Wall its mood and intricate relationships, it also gives the story its coincidences and limited pool of suspects. It’s as if everyone we meet is either a victim, suspect or murderer. I did guess the outcome as a result. Nevertheless, this beautifully written novel is bleakly atmospheric and compelling throughout, tied to its stunning yet bleak location, and driven on by its rich line-up of characters. It’s irresistible.