Head of Zeus | 2019 (14 November) | 409p | Review copy | Buy the book
Two years ago brother Leo and Ben Fenton went camping. One morning Ben woke up in their tent to find himself drenched in blood and Leo missing, never to be seen again. For the police it was an open and shut case and now Ben is serving his time in prison for murder. Ben’s girlfriend Anna has always protested his innocence and, although she has tried to pick up the pieces of her life, she can’t escape from the dark shadow of Leo’s death and Ben’s imprisonment. Now, suddenly, in the midst of the heatwave of early summer 2018, Anna learns that a body has been found, not near where the brothers were camping, but in a shallow grave in her own local church in the village of Ayot near St Albans. The discovery coincides with strange messages that Anna receives, suggesting the impossible, that Leo might be alive after all. One thing Anna is certain of, though, is that she is being watched. Meanwhile the detective in charge of the case, DCI Maarten Jansen, is sure that Anna has something to hide.
The Scorched Earth is the second novel by Rachael Blok to feature DCI Maarten Jansen and, as a result, I couldn’t wait to read it. I absolutely loved Under the Ice and I’m delighted to say that The Scorched Earth is every bit as good. You don’t need to have read the earlier book first as they both stand alone very well but Jansen’s character is beautifully explored in both novels. He’s a quiet man but he’s a fascinating one. We know very little about him, although the picture is slowly building, but one thing we do know is that his family means everything to him and in The Scorched Earth he is about to have the very ground beneath his feet shift. I loved spending more time with him and his team of detectives.
There’s also the appeal of the Hertfordshire setting. I love the beauty and charm of these villages and other locations. It is quintessentially English even while DCI Maarten Jansen is not. There is such a strong sense of place. And then there’s the weather. The first novel, as you’d suspect from the title, was set in the dead of winter. By contrast we’re here placed in the centre of a heatwave that is fresh in our minds and this relentless heat is a character in itself. It’s everywhere, it’s inescapable. It affects everyone’s mood. There is such a stark light of long summer baked evenings. It’s irresistible.
The mystery at the heart of The Scorched Earth is an excellent one, with some very well-drawn characters who keep us on the edge of our seat. The prison scenes are especially compelling as Ben tries to deal with so many conflicted emotions while still trying to stay in one piece. It’s all very well done. Anna is equally interesting, although she is more difficult to know. We know she has secrets. We know she’s not telling us everything. But we want to hope for the best.
The novel includes regular flashbacks to the events of the camping trip two years before. I did like these scenes. We get to know Leo and realise what kind of man he was. His loss hangs over this novel. It’s important to be reminded of his existence. The Scorched Earth is very atmospheric, with excellent storytelling and the tale it tells is fascinating. I can’t wait for book three.
Under the Ice