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Rayne, Sarah - 'The Death Chamber'
Paerback: 560 pages (Aug. 2008) Publisher:Pocket Books ISBN: 1416522239

This totally awesome book will have you holding your breath and listening for noises if you read it after midnight. If you have ever been intrigued by such topics as the paranormal, contacting the dead, or enjoyed watching Most Haunted or similar TV programmes, this storyline will have you hooked. It is fascinating but not over the top. It is a clever mixture of stories set in three separate timelines that 'jump' between each other - 1917, 1938 and the present day - and centres on the life of a young prison doctor in the infamous, murderers prison, Calvary. It starts with him as a young lad (1917), then moves to him working in the prison (1938) and finally shifts to his great granddaughter in the present day.

In brief, seven-year-old Walter Kane visits his father in Calvary gaol in 1917, the day before he is hanged. He promises his father that he will be a doctor when he grows up and remains true to his word. Twenty-one years later he is back in the prison but this time as its doctor - a job at which he excels. One of his first tasks is to oversee the execution of an infamous killer called Neville Fremlin. The rather grisly job haunts him, and he starts to wonder about the guilt of the prisoner, but he carries out his duties faultlessly. Life becomes more uncomfortable for him when a seemingly impressionable young murderess is brought in to be hanged a few years later, but things settle down again after a fashion. Then Walter leaves the prison to join up and fight in the second world war. He settles in Switzerland when the war is over and records of his exploits become rather sparse.

Although Walter is definitely the central character in the book, the main thrust of it lies in the present day. Walter's great granddaughter, Georgina, who knows virtually nothing about his life, is contacted unexpectedly by the Caradoc Society - an organisation that investigates the paranormal - to tell her that her great grandfather donated a sum of money to their work and, as they are closing down, the proceeds of the sale of the house bought with the money would be given to her, when all other debts are paid. Georgina escapes a failing business and a nasty relationship break-up for a few days to go and discover her past. She is immediately hooked by the mystery surrounding her great grandfather's life, particularly his connection to the prison.

At the same time as she is visiting her past, a television crew is also digging around in Calvary; looking for evidence of any energies left by the past horrors and researching the more infamous prisoners for a TV show. Unfortunately, they, and Georgina, are just a little too curious and it appears that while the ghosts of the past want the living to discover their stories, not everybody feels quite the same. The thrill of the chase in the old, abandoned building in the small hours is nail-biting. Things almost go very wrong for Georgina and her new friends.

This book is so well written, you are a spectator in a corner of the execution chamber for a large amount of the time. The hangings of the past and the experiences in the present are so vivid that it is difficult to put the book down. There are several delightful twists at the end of the story and the gaps in Walter's life are also satisfactorily filled. Almost everything you have been finding out is nicely rounded off and the single thread left hanging at the end is uncomfortably perfect!

The book does have one significant downfall and that is Georgina, who is not that well represented. She does not get very good lines, especially at the start, and is almost annoying in her constant reflections on the end of her toxic relationship with the horrid David. Her character is rather weak throughout the book, but she does eventually evolve into a stronger person than she first appears. All of the other characters are well developed and Vincent Meade, the secretary of the Caradoc Society, is so eccentric and bizarre that he almost leaps out of the book to sit beside you, complete with his over-the-top clothes and rather strange conversations with his dead mother.

THE DEATH CHAMBER is extremely well-researched and is Sarah Rayne's fifth book. I am looking forward to seeking out some of her earlier offerings and eagerly await her future creations. She is amazing.

Amanda C M Gillies, Scotland
September 2008

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 20/09/2008 15:52