Book review: Tarnished by Julia Crouch

When mild-mannered librarian Peg Thwaites tries to recall her early childhood, she finds her memory is a just ‘a big, empty hole.’

Monday, 15th April 2013, 10:00 am

There are one or two remembrances floating around – bedtime stories from her beloved Nan, walks on the beach and her favourite ‘sniffy blanket’ – but it’s as if the rest has been erased.

She has always been content to draw a veil over the past, refrain from asking too many questions about her unusual upbringing and accept that sometimes events just don’t take root in the brain.

But some recent, disturbing discoveries are set to open up the family closet... and the skeletons that come tumbling out are so terrible that Peg will start to wonder whether her youthful lack of curiosity might not have been a good thing.

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Tarnished, the third and undoubtedly best thriller so far from the pen of Julia Crouch, is a masterclass in menace, a slow-burning, psychological story of love, guilt and obsession which takes us into the deepest, darkest corners of the human mind.

Crouch has become an expert at presenting what seems at first to be the ordinary lives of ordinary people and, with a barely perceptible sleight of hand, turning humdrum into horror.

Peg’s life has always seemed ‘blurred round the edges.’ She was brought up by her Nan, a feisty little woman called Doll, at her bungalow by the seaside in Kent and rarely asked about her father Raymond who walked out years ago, her mother who died when Peg was only six and her obese, bedridden Aunty Jean who lives in the annexe.

But now aged 22, Peg has moved out of the increasingly frail Nan’s home and is sharing a flat in London with Loz, her straight-talking, psychologically astute girlfriend who has taught Peg to ‘swim her life, rather than just float it.’

Loz knows that Peg needs to fill in her memory gaps and finally confront both the past and her demons, and what better place to start than finding out if her father is still alive.

Peg’s first clue is an uncle who died in mysterious circumstances and a drink mat in Nan’s cocktail cabinet which takes her to a seedy dance club in London, and then on to a luxurious villa in Spain.

But digging up family history can be dangerous and Peg encounters secrets so terrible that she may wish she had let the past remain buried...

Crouch’s chiller-thrillers are always so perfectly executed... terrifying, white-knuckle dramas unfold through beautifully honed and descriptive language, and without losing their excellent grip on time and place.

A clever, classy treat...

(Headline, paperback, £13.99)