Author: Flynn Berry

Publisher: Penguin Books, 2016

ISBN: 97811101 992067

Nora, a London woman without a serious love life or career, arrives at her sister’s house for a country weekend and finds her brutally slain. Rachel, a nurse practitioner at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, recently broke up with a fiancé. The two young women were planning their annual holiday in Cornwall. Nora and Rachel had remained unusually close since childhood. One event binding them together was an attack on Rachel when they were teenagers. Devastated, Nora decides she must stay in Marlow to help solve the crime. She follows her suspects with a razor in her pocket.

Disturbing and moving, this contemporary crime story travels a fine line – perhaps a tight rope – between a creepy, psychological thriller and a realistic police procedural. With some scenes in Oxford and the sympathetic investigator named Lewis, I could have been influenced by the BBC television series (“Lewis”) to believe there are bizarre personalities at work here. Still, I could identify with the grief-driven main character at many times, and I am pretty ordinary. The central question seems to be: How angry does one have to be to commit murder? Radiating from that are more: When does someone desperate for answers become a stalker? What would justify an act of revenge? How many incidents from our youth can we erase? Is forgetting them enough? In our failed relationships, is alcohol the serious problem? Is sexual desire the source of our devils? Or are we damaged in some unseen way?

This novel has been compared to Broadchurch, that British TV series so laden with suspicious characters you want to lock yourself in your house and not even talk to long time neighbors. I would rather agree with others who say this clear-voiced, first person narration of obsession and terror is more in the category of The Girl on the Train. But it is better. Under the Harrow is commendably taut and for that reason, in my estimation, much more satisfying when the truth comes out and of course I was wrong. I can’t blame it on the author. Even picking up on small details, thinking myself clever, an experienced reader, I was surprised.

The writer is skillful. Little things loom large in the plot as they are eked out of the spare narrative, but ultimately it is an iota of missing information that counts and connects all the dots. This is an enticing device. Every character seems to know some of the story, but no one knows enough. There is plenty of blame to go around, but as subplots evolve and then dissipate, points are lost and we’re back at square one and the grisly opening scene. Nora is determined to bring the nightmare to an end. We wonder up to the last page if she will only make things worse.

Flynn Berry seems to know that in mystery writing less can be more. She hardly uses dialogue, and her characters are mostly like people we have met, but they still have depth. She doesn’t go in for an expansive or scenic backdrop, but you quickly get a handy mind map of Marlow. Anyone familiar with England from London to Oxford, and Leeds to The Lizard, will appreciate the glimpses of landscape she provides, though they are not entirely lovely.