Book review: The Hollow Tree, by Philip Miller

In this second book in Philip Miller’s Shona Sandison series, the hard-bitten investigative journalist finds herself looking into a death at a wedding. Review by Allan Massie

Philip Miller’s first crime novel, 2022’s The Goldenacre, was widely and deservedly praised by, among others, Denise Mina and Liam McIlvanney. I called it “unusual and elegant”. It had a complicated and effective plot and the same can be said of his second, The Hollow Tree, though again following the plot demands concentration from the reader. It begins with a wedding-party which ends prematurely when one of the guests, Dan Merrygill, kills himself, doing so in front of the crippled investigative journalist Shona Sandison who featured in The Goldenacre. The dead man was a school friend of the bride, Viv, whose wedding was so abruptly called off.

Naturally, Shona sees a story here, prompted by Reculver, a senior policeman friend who has links to Special Branch and probably to the Security Services. Her curiosity is further whetted when Viv tells her that £80,000 has mysteriously appeared in her bank account. Susan is eager to be off to the village in Durham where Dan lived and Viv was brought up along with her brother Andy, who mysteriously disappeared some 30 years ago. Her departure is delayed, however, by anxiety about her aged father, now in hospital and worried about his allotment. This side-plot serves to soften Shona’s character, which is otherwise somewhat abrasive. Crime fiction today seems to insist that investigators – policemen, journalists and others – have private, often difficult off-duty lives – thus humanizing them.

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Before Susan gets to Durham, we have already met an obvious villain, a Tory MP emerging from a sex-and drugs orgy. Indeed, Reculver gas already drawn Shona’s attention to him with a suggestion of neo-Nazi stuff. This is rather a cliché, therefore disappointing. How he may be involved in the mystery of Dan’s suicide and Andy’s disappearance is not revealed of course, but unless Miller is dangling a daring red herring with a twist in its (absent) tail, he surely must be. I would expect something more subtle from a writer of Miller’s quality.

Shona’s search in the wild and lonely Durham village and countryside is admirably done. There are some strange encounters, one with an old man asleep in a tumbledown cottage with a rifle on his lap. Gradually she becomes acquainted with a number of women, some stonily reluctant, others more forthcoming. It gradually becomes apparent that her investigation must focus on a small group who, many years ago, were all in the sixth form at the local school, and on their strange doings with a Ouija board. To say more about the plot, however, would breach the reviewer’s code of honour.

Shona, frequently grumpy and ill-tempered, is nevertheless an engaging investigator. She acquires a local sidekick, too, a young girl photographer. They make a good pair, squabbling, grumbling, drinking quite a bit and using the sort of language that Shona’s octogenarian Marxist father would not have expected to hear from members of the other sex. But this no doubt is how it is now, and Miller has a good ear for lively, if repetitious, language.

There are some improbabilities in the plot and, at times, a rather too easy acceptance of violence which strains credulity, one corpse for instance being buried without much concern. But there is far more to admire and enjoy than to cavil at, and the confrontation scene between Shona and the chief villain is agreeably satisfying.

Miller grew up in Durham and the bleak and challenging landscape is splendidly evoked. The complicated plot is well managed, though for long periods baffling, and there is an atmospheric and nicely sinister feel to the novel. If Shona is to me often more irritating than engaging, the same may be said of a great many investigators in crime fiction today. You don’t have to like them to be engrossed.

Philip MillerPhilip Miller
Philip Miller

I assume – and hope – that Miller will continue with crime and Shona, despite my reservations, is a sufficiently strong and convincing character to build a sequence on. This second novel is to be highly rated for mood, atmosphere, ingenuity and narrative.

The Hollow Tree, by Philip Miller, Polygon, £9.99

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