HANGING HILL by Mo Hayder is one of those books that you don’t get over after having read it. From its somber first sentences to its final paragraph, this is an instant classic, one that is firmly rooted in the mystery/thriller genre but that transcends classification.
The novel takes place in the city of Bath, England, far from the London world of Hayder’s Jack Caffrey and the Walking Man series. The deceptively peaceful setting is not without its own dangers, though. At its core, HANGING HILL concerns two long-estranged sisters whose lives have taken quite divergent paths. Zoe Benedict is an extremely competent police detective who is as deadly as she is striking. Independent, a martial artist, and possessed of a thatch of striking red hair and legs that reach from London to Paris, Zoe is just short of being the force’s loose cannon. Sally, Zoe’s sister, could not be more different from her older sibling.
"What Hayder does is set up a scenario that grows more suspenseful (painfully so) by the page, until he shakes things up when the reader least expects it."
Seemingly bequeathed by life with an indelible “kick me” sign, Sally is still reeling from the breakup of her marriage from her philandering husband, who is newly remarried and with a new baby. She is woefully unable to make the downward adjustment in income and lifestyle and has been forced to take up work as a housecleaner to support herself and Millie, her teenage daughter. The one bright spot in her life is Steve Finder, her newly minted boyfriend. Steve is kind, gentle and somewhat mysterious. He has employment that takes him around the world doing things that he can’t really talk about and is as wise to the world as Sally is clueless. The estrangement between the sisters occurred long in the past, and runs deep, for reasons that are slowly and tantalizingly revealed as the story progresses.
Lest you think from the above that you’ve wandered into a summary of an ancient “Masterpiece Theatre”story arc, let me hasten to assure you that the impetus that slowly draws the sisters together occurs early on in the book. The event is the murder of Lorne Wood, a beautiful and popular teenage girl whose defiled body is found on a canal towpath. Millie was vaguely acquainted with the victim, as were her friends; Zoe and her homicide team are assigned to investigate the murder. Millie and Zoe initially come into contact with one another, which brings Zoe and Sally reluctantly and tangentially together as well, if only for a moment. As we are hastened to be told early, however, Bath is a very small town, with everything interconnected at one point or another.
One of Sally’s customers, a rather detestable gentleman named David Goldrab, begins to attract the attention of the police in connection with Lorne’s murder. But it is one lead that Zoe is reluctant to pursue, once she discovers that she has had a difficult and unfortunate history with the man in the past. When events and circumstances surrounding Goldrab put the sisters on an intersection, they each find an unlikely ally and confidant in the other, as the investigation into the young woman’s death takes them both into places that neither of them would have expected.
That covers everything I can tell you without giving away the game. But there is much more set forth in a painstakingly presented and beautifully paced plot that demands to be read in one sitting yet is best appreciated if savored slowly. What Hayder does is set up a scenario that grows more suspenseful (painfully so) by the page, until he shakes things up when the reader least expects it. After reading the book, my mood was similar to what it was when I completed SHUTTER ISLAND. Please note: HANGING HILL does not resemble Dennis Lehane’s classic in the slightest; it is simply nothing more or less than a work of similar magnitude. Accordingly, you need to set aside all else and read this book. It is not to be missed.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 8, 2012