Portraits of the Dead, by John Nicholl

Eight stars

Returning with another psychological thriller, John Nicholl stuns readers with this novel, whose content and dramatic build-up offer something for everyone. Emma Jones is a quiet and down to earth university student whose assault and kidnapping goes off without a hitch for a masked intruder. In a haze, Emma can barely piece together the events that see her locked in a soundproof room, her captor relishing the power he has over her as she cowers in the corner. Forced to degrade herself and offer false platitudes to a man who demands complete respect, Emma can only hope that this nightmare will end before too long. She soon discovers that she is the sixth such captive, the other five having met their untimely demise at the hands of this sicko. Detective Inspector Gareth Gravel is asked to investigate Emma’s disappearance when her parents refuse to believe she has simply gone off the grid. Skeptical but determined to follow his superiors, Gravel completes a preliminary investigation by interviewing some of those who knew Emma best. Calling upon Detective Sergeant Clive Rankin to assist, Gravel begins to unravel the last hours of Emma’s life on the outside, though he cannot help but wonder if this is just teenage rebellion. When a body dump is discovered just outside of a Welsh town, Gravel and Rankin become convinced Emma’s disappearance is more than a game; certainly not a simple kidnapping. All the women whose decomposing bodies are found have similar characteristics to Emma, though her body is not among those scattered in the woods. Gravel tasks Rankin to begin probing around, hoping that Emma can be saved before it is too late. Strategic canvassing leads Rankin to the home of an elderly woman who offers what she feels is a potentially useful lead, though her age and memory are a little spotty. Following up on this, their best lead, Rankin and Gravel work as the killer ups the ante and pushes Emma to her limits. As panic sets in, the authorities inch closer in their investigation though remain clueless as to the perpetrator. Weighing the advantages to keeping Emma with him against the need to destroy all evidence before he is found out, the killer must make a choice that could seal Emma’s fate forever. Gravel and Rankin may have the backing of the Welsh authorities, but some killers can elude even the most determined detectives. Nicholl offers a captivating story whose action resonates long after the final sentence completes this chilling tale.

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Nicholl’s previous novels, I was not disappointed with his latest offering. Nicholl is able to use his characters not only to tell a story, but their individual characteristics help pull the reader deeper into the narrative and offer wonderful contrasts throughout. Set in Wales, the story takes on a much different setting than the rough and tumble streets of New York, Washington, London, or even Oslo. This setting and the attention to detail that Nicholl brings to the story offered a unique experience for me, which sets it apart from a number of the books in the genre I have read to date. Even though the killer’s identity was revealed halfway through, this did not detract from the story, as the ultimate game of cat and mouse ensued. The reader might have tried pushing Gravel and Rankin in one direction or yelled as the omnipotent narrative offered all the clues to solve the case, but this only added to the complexity of the novel. When all is said and done, the final half dozen chapters pull the story into a whirlwind of action and emotion as Nicholl seeks to offer twists and turns that enrich the story’s dark aspects. Brilliantly executed and throughly entertaining, Nicholl uses some of the key aspects of his previous two novels while building this standalone novel to capture a whole new collection of fans.

Kudos, Mr. Nicholl for tapping into the darkest sides of the psychological thriller genre while also pushing the limits in order to get your point across. This is sure to be a great success and should pave the way for more writing of a similar vein. 

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