- - Friday, July 27, 2012

By S.J. Bolton
Minotaur, $25.99
384 pages

By Minette Walters
Mysterious Press, $22
160 pages

Suicide on a college campus is a scary topic and S.J. Bolton’s “Dead Scared” lives up to its title with a catalog of terrified young women whose deaths defy reason.

In the kind of decision that often makes no sense in mystery novels, Lacey Flint, an attractive young London police officer, emerges from a recent trying experience in a murder case to find herself reassigned to what can only be described as deep cover and dangerous. It doesn’t help that she has a romantic interest in Detective Inspector Mark Joesbury to whom she reports on her work. If you think that can cause problems, you’re right.

Ms. Bolton writes a taut and sinister story in which the psychological nocturnal hauntings of a group of students are described in a frighteningly realistic manner. This may not be an appropriate literary choice for nervous young women in college because the atmosphere of fear in an ostensibly safe setting is creative and credible.

However, the plot is sophisticated and crisply constructed. Most effective is the way in which peril mounts. The author’s style of slicing chapters into brief events helps build the momentum of suspense that strikes in the night. The combination of Flint and Joesbury is now in its fourth incarnation. This time around it reaches the point where candor can replace coquetry between them, although this has all the makings of a turbulent relationship. The mechanics of murder described here are brutal as the plot slowly unveils the history of psychological sadism that lies beyond a traditional setting.

Like all effective mystery characters, Flint takes unnecessary risks and only the reader knows she will survive. In this case, it is only her realization of her affection for Joesbury that prevents her from hurtling into a drugged disaster and thus depriving us all of her presence.

The tinderbox question of whether the execution of a man was justified is never answered in the novella “Chickenfeed” and since this is based on a real criminal case, it makes it all the more fascinating.

It was back in 1924 that Norman Thorne was hanged for the killing of his girlfriend on a chicken farm in England. He never confessed to the crime although his explanations of his behavior contributed to the guilty verdict. In “Innocent Victims,” Minette Walters has fictionalized the crime, yet it remains a strange and oddly simple case of a young man pursued by a neurotic and paranoid young woman who even pretends she is pregnant in a desperate effort to force him to marry her.

Thorne is a sad case of a young man who cannot escape his fate. Not even his involvement with another woman can discourage Elsie Cameron, who is lonely and depressed and envisions in the gentle-mannered Thorne the husband who would be a solution to her personal problems.

Even Thorne’s parents caution him against his engagement to the aggressively determined Elsie, yet he is sorry for her and he does not have the strength of character to free himself from a disastrous relationship.

The death of Elsie Cameron remains a gruesome enigma. Thorne’s version is that he finds her hanging naked in the kitchen of his chicken farm, and that his panic leads him to dismember and bury her.

In a letter, Thorne writes of finding Elsie, “Who would believe I hadn’t killed her? The only thing I could think was bury her body and pretend I’d never seen her. I got out my hacksaw and sawed off her legs and head … because I thought smaller pieces would be easier to bury. I put her head in a biscuit tin and wrapped the rest in newspaper.”

As an investigating police officer observed to Thorne, “You treated that poor girl with no more respect than you show a dead chicken. And policemen don’t like that.”

Yet there were lingering questions about reasonable doubt in the Thorne case. Ms Walters observes, “It interests me that Norman Thorne never confessed to killing Elsie Cameron. Not even on the gallows.”

And she suggests that the truth might lie in the possibility that the deranged Elsie Cameron planned to frighten Norman when he came home by standing on a chair with a noose around her neck to arouse his pity and his guilt at seeing another woman. Perhaps, she says, this “cry for attention went wrong. Perhaps she pulled the noose too tight by accident … compressing the nerves and arteries in the neck caused the brain to shut down and the heart to stop.”

Elsie Cameron suffered from psychological disorders, Ms. Walters points out, and psychoanalysis was still in its infancy back in the 1920s. The key question remains whether Norman Thorne was an innocent man. All that remains is conjecture.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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