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Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder

Disclaimer: I adore Mo Hayder’s writing – her twisty but never implausible plotting, her gimlet-eyed view of her jaundiced casts – and can’t claim to approach her work with a lack of bias. She is particularly noted for grisly frankness, which even by crime thriller standards is unusually confronting (her second novel, 2001’s The Treatment, had themes of paedophilia and other child abuse), and perhaps it is this, combined with the lack of self-conscious or artifice in her writing or characters, which makes her so compelling.

Unlike 2010’s Gone, part of her Walking Man series featuring several recurring characters, her new work Hanging Hill is a stand-alone novel which centres on the murder of a pretty young high-schooler in the historic English city of Bath. The girl’s body is found shortly after her failure to return from a daytime shopping trip. She is discovered with a tennis ball wedged into her mouth; two messages are scrawled on her bare torso in bright lipstick. The motive for the killing is unclear.

While this crime drives the plot, the real story, set up in a cryptic prologue involving a conversation at a funeral, is about two adult sisters, Zoe and Sally. As the tale unfolds, it emerges that Zoe and Sally have been estranged since childhood, following an event so traumatic that the girls’ parents determined it would be best to separate them forever, starting with different boarding schools.

The separation stuck, though the two remain in Bath, averting their eyes when they see each other in the street and keeping abreast of each others’ lives through the chance comments of mutual acquaintances. Zoe knows of Sally’s recent divorce – though not that its cause was her husband’s affair with their blowsy Australian au pair, with whom he now has a new baby – and Sally tracks Zoe’s career with the Bath police.

Both women bear heavy emotional and practical burdens. Zoe copes with the pressures of her job and a tentative affair with a colleague by self-harming, while Sally’s lack of financial acumen has her hovering just above penury. Both women are led by their choices and circumstances towards one another and, more precipitously, in the direction of Bath’s dark underbelly and some miscreants who have fetched up there (including a delightfully repellent big-time pornographer who inadvertently becomes a vivid fulcrum of the narrative).

The investigation of the initial murder is what first snares the sisters and may bring them freedom. Zoe is part of the investigating team, and the dead girl was an acquaintance of Sally’s daughter Millie. The two teenagers had several friends in common, some of whom become suspects (in the loosest sense of the term – there is a dearth of vim and vigour in Hayder’s version of the Bath constabulary) thanks to some criminal profiling that is more convenient than accurate.

Hayder has a particular knack for character creation, and for even-handedness, drawing out the good as she does the bad. It is all too easy in crime writing to set up a couple of red-herring, paint-by-numbers villains, while artfully concealing the diabolical sociopathy of that nice, nondescript chap who’s been under the reader’s nose the whole time.

This writer never does so, instead constructing her story so craftily, with such sleight of hand, that the mysteries of the chapters seem to unfold for her just as they do her reader. She is indisputably one of the greats.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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