Wednesday 20 November 2013

Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

I've been meaning to read and review Louise Millar's Accidents Happen for a while now. Although the title doesn't necessarily suggest a crime novel, and nor does the paperback cover, showing a windswept woman, it's a book that has been well received elsewhere, and finally I got the chance to catch up with it. And I found the story highly readable and refreshingly different.

If you wanted to pigeon-hole the type of story, you might compare it to early Nicci French. We're talking psychological suspense from a female perspective .Books of this kind usually feature strong women, but in the early pages, the protagonist Kate Parker seems irritatingly nervous about pretty much everything. This disturbs the people she is close to, even though her obsession with statistics about accidents and other risks is explained by reference to the tragic bereavements she has suffered, including the death of her husband Hugo.

As the book proceeded, however, I found myself warming to Kate, and I think many other readers will respond similarly and root for her as the story twists and turns, even though at one point she behaves hurtfully towards two harmless women she doesn't know, unattractive and impulsive behaviour she quickly regrets. We forgive her accordingly. An example of subtle characterisation, I thought.

There is a terrific plot twist in this story, although I must say that one solitary clue (concerning a name) enabled me to figure it out at a fairly early stage. But that didn't lessen my enjoyment. I found the story of Kate's struggle against a real or imagined menace very appealing, and the background is nicely done; a mixture of everyday Oxford life, and an intriguing foray into London one night for a "bat-watch."

I was especially interested in Louise Millar's craftsmanship, and I'll try to make a few points about her storytelling technique without "spoilers". She chose to tell the story from several viewpoints, those of Kate, her young son Jack, her sister-in-law, a weird next door neighbour, and a mysterious child. This was a good way of building suspense and complicating the narrative. Especially neat, to my mind, was the fact that both Kate and Jack were placed in jeopardy separately. I also thought that the slow build-up of Kate's interest in a man who might just have the solution to her psychological problems was well done, even if some of the tests that he set her were a little odd, and rather protracted.

Millar clearly took the decision to build the stakes as high as possible. I did wonder whether the explanation for what was going on, which was rooted in the past, was a bit excessive. A less melodramatic and frankly unlikely motivation and plan might have served equally well, and enhanced credibility (I wasn't convinced by what had evidently happened in Shropshire, for instance.) I also felt that the finale wasn't foreshadowed quite as much as it might have been (then again, more clues might give too much away; it's a real dilemma when writing a book of this kind.) But the name of the game in modern commercial fiction is High Stakes, and Louise Millar certainly delivered. She is a really talented entertainer, and I look forward to reading more of her books.

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