Book review: When the Dead Come Calling, by Helen Sedgwick

Down under the cliffs in the village of Burrowhead in the north-east of England is a cave full of ancient inscriptions and deep, stale recesses, with waves crashing against the pebbles at its hidden entrance. It is a claustrophobic shrine to past horrors, and early on in this new novel from Helen Sedgwick, we get the impression that whatever lies within it provides the key to both the past and the present. Following the gruesome murder of a Greek psychotherapist with a local practice, it becomes apparent that the village above the cave is also in thrall to old folk memories, and is similarly claustrophobic.

Helen Sedgwick
Helen Sedgwick

At the centre of this thriller is DI Georgie Strachan, a sensible and empathetic woman whose gentle approach to investigation is offset by her more straight-talking, local-born junior officer, Trish.

Although the subject matter is sometimes graphic, the novel also offers a warm evocation of life in a rural community. The villagers are a close-knit lot, from befuddled Walt the beekeeper, who takes his evening walks wearing his dressing gown, to Andy the gawky teen, carrying out work experience at the police station in the hope of one day being able to secure a ticket out of the village and away from his abusive father. 
All are interconnected, whether born and bred or incomer, and Sedgwick gives the distinct (and realistic) impression that there are varying levels of local depending on how many generations of a family has lived in the area.

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There is a light-touch sense of humour too. As tensions rise following the discovery of a second body, outside police help comes in the shape of the somewhat hapless DS Frazer, a stickler for rules and regulations who isn’t used to his investigations being held up by disobedient flocks of sheep on the road.

As Georgie investigates the murders, her husband – who is unemployed, given to impulsive spending and suffering from depression – becomes obsessed with researching the ancient prehistory of the area. Some of the things he experiences seem to be paranormal, but are they in fact manifestations of his own psychological problems?

Centuries in the stranglehold of religion seem to have blighted the village, and a horrifying incident during the slave trade seems caught in the collective memory. This atavism recurs throughout the book, and memory, false or otherwise, is a central theme.

Burrowhead is no Midsomer. The descriptions of the village itself are pretty grim, from the disaffected youths in substandard housing to the dry and decaying fountain that seems to symbolise the area’s decline.

The owner of the local Spar, who is of Sri Lankan descent, has been targeted with racist graffiti which escalates to egg throwing and dog faeces being posted through his door. Soon, poison pen letters are being sent to residents who aren’t “local,” including Georgie herself, and these hate crimes may or may not be connected to the violence.

Nor are the links between the murders straightforward. The first body is found in an open-air playground, tangled in the chains of a swing and missing its eyes, while the second is a brutal stabbing of a young man.

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Sedgwick’s writing is minutely observational, clever and warm. One minute you are transported by her descriptions of the landscape, the next she is raising the hairs on the back of your neck with her dreamlike descriptions of whatever lurks in the cave at the foot of the cliffs. 
It is her portrayal of the closed world of a remote community, however, that will chill you to the bone. Kirsty McLuckie

When the Dead Come Calling, by Helen Sedgwick, Point Blank, 350pp, £14.99