S. J. Bolton looks so tranquil, yet she writes so darkly. In a (relatively) short period of time, Bolton has acquired a rock-solid reputation for penning memorable and chilling novels that seem destined to be shortlisted for genre fiction awards from the moment they are published. Interest in her work increased dramatically last year when she introduced British Detective Constable Lacey Flint in NOW YOU SEE ME; the just-published DEAD SCARED picks up where the previous novel left off. As good as the first book was, Bolton was obviously just warming up. Her latest is of a quality that authors, not to mention readers, dream of.
"The critical and commercial acclaim that Bolton has achieved is well-deserved. Each of her efforts surpasses her last, a pattern that she continues with this book. And while it stands well on its own, there are just enough open subplots left to make the wait for the next installment seem like an excruciatingly painful proposition."
The core of DEAD SCARED is a complex and puzzling mystery that hits the who, why and how buttons repeatedly. Flint is tasked with investigating a series of horrific suicides of students at the storied University of Cambridge. It appears that these deaths are simply the end result of an inability to deal with significant depression on the part of each victim, occasioned by the stringent requirements of academia and the new and unfamiliar surroundings in which the students find themselves. Yet there are a number of elements that appear to connect the victims, such that the London police are not entirely convinced that each and all of the suicidal events were acts of solitary inspiration.
It is believed in some quarters that someone might be preying on lonely and/or isolated students, and either encouraging them to engage in the ultimate in self-destructive acts or actually assisting them in doing so, voluntarily and otherwise. On the one hand, there are a certain number of suicides per term to be expected, notwithstanding the best efforts of university counselors to prevent them. Yet the number of suicides has been higher for the past few years than one might statistically expect.
Flint assumes an undercover role where she is cast as a vulnerable new student. To further complicate matters, Flint continues to be attracted to the one person with whom she should not be involved: Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury, her superior officer. His attraction to her is anything but one-way; Joesbury, of course, is reticent to become involved with Flint as well, yet his feelings cannot be denied.
When Flint follows a tenuous thread of evidence back to a rather surprising source, she puts herself --- and ultimately her career --- in jeopardy as she disobeys orders in an effort to prevent yet another death. The ending is suspenseful, involving not one but two races against an unexpected though no less diabolical source of intrigue that is as ingenious as it is evil and deadly. Everything will have changed for those who manage to survive.
The critical and commercial acclaim that Bolton has achieved is well-deserved. Each of her efforts surpasses her last, a pattern that she continues with this book. And while it stands well on its own, there are just enough open subplots left to make the wait for the next installment seem like an excruciatingly painful proposition. Undoubtedly, however, it ultimately will be worth the wait.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 27, 2012