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Vowler, Tom - 'What Lies Within'
Hardback: 304 pages (Apr. 2013) Publisher: Headline ISBN: 0755392183

When a convict escapes from nearby Dartmoor prison, Anna's remote farmhouse starts to feel a little too remote. She becomes increasingly scared for her family, whose stability is already under threat from the teenage rebellion of her son.

Elsewhere, a young teacher is brutally assaulted by one of her students and has to fight to prove her side of the story - and to deal with its consequences. As the two stories converge, we fear for the family at the heart of the book, threatened by the past as much as by the present.

An admired and award-winning short story writer, Vowler's debut novel was always going to be an intriguing read. How would he weave his love of language into a hard-hitting crime plot? Would he be required to abandon, or at least dilute, his literary credentials? Or would his talent for storytelling surmount all? The answers, in reverse order: Yes, No, and Winningly.

The choice of a haunting backdrop for the story - deep into Dartmoor - is a perfect fit for Vowler's prose which is rich in places with the lilt of mythology, but pared down when the plot demands it. His choice of subject matter brings its own discipline.

This is a story about rape and its aftermath, emotional and physical. It's about survival, the price paid, what's won and lost. But, overridingly, it's about families.

When the young school teacher works up the courage to tell her parents she was raped, her father's reaction is startling and believable. He doesn't see how a fifteen year old boy can have overpowered his adult daughter. And when Anna struggles to fathom the changes in her teenage son, and to discuss these with her husband (who is not the boy's father), we begin to sense that something is more than amiss with Anna's family.

Vowler has a talent for creating complex, credible and quirky characters that refuse to march to the tune of a typical crime novel. Anna's daughter, Megan, was my favourite, with her macabre taste for animal corpses. There is hardly room in the novel for the cast that Vowler's created, and yet he handles the layers with delicacy and skill.

The twist in the middle is perfectly timed. We both knew and didn't know it was coming. Once it arrives, the pace picks up dramatically and the remaining pages almost turn themselves as the pieces converge to reach their conclusion. A conclusion that is blessedly free from spoon-fed explanations of the sort that punctuate the ending of so many crime books.

Perhaps Vowler's chief achievement is in lining up each shard of evidence - emotional and physical - and 'ending' with the curtain lifting on a dramatic scene that might destroy or redeem Anna and her family.

Sarah Hilary, England
April 2013

Sarah blogs at
Crawl Space.

Sarah Hilary is the Bristol-based winner of the Cheshire Prize of Literature 2012, the Sense Creative Writing Award 2010 and the Fish Criminally Short Histories Prize 2008. In 2012, she launched Flashbang, a crime writing contest in association with CrimeFest. Sarah's debut novel, SOMEONE ELSE'S SKIN, will be published by Headline in 2014.

More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 25/04/2013 11:54