Book review: Burning Secrets, by Ruth Sutton
It was the springtime we’ll never forget, when the shadow of foot and mouth disease spread across much of the country.
Cities once ravaged by the blitz were spared this time. Instead it was the quiet and picturesque corners…more than corners, in truth, huge swathes of land….that saw bonfires of burning animals, villages isolated, and farmers even driven to suicide in despair.
Cumbria was the worst affected region, with the fells out of bounds (ludicrously, to city visitors arriving in clean boots), tourism businesses wrecked, and healthy animals slaughtered.
This is the backdrop to Ruth Sutton’s latest novel, Burning Secrets, set in northern Cumbria where families were torn apart by the outbreak. Even to the extent of sending children to live elsewhere, to more easily access their schooling, just as wartime evacuees were sent to live “in the country”.
And it’s one of these, a sensitive and trusting lass called Helen, who goes missing, kidnapped by a man with serious instability issues.
It seems to take a tortuous age before she’s safe – well, relatively so – back with her family. But those who wonder why a police search could be so slow need to understand how normal life came to a halt during the crisis. There was no freedom to move around in country areas. Why, even tourists trying to get to Windermere on the Kendal bypass had to drive over a disinfected mat.
The tension increases on Helen’s return when mysteries continue to thwart the local police. And here we are introduced to one of two intriguing women characters, Detective Sergeant Anna Penrose, an outsider regarded with suspicion by colleagues, but one who proves to be as tough as her military training.
The other is the missing girl’s mother, Rose, secretive, cunning and apparently vulnerable all at the same time.
Sutton’s characters are her great strength, and there are still new readers coming to love her trilogy, Between the Mountains and the Sea, and her subsequent crime novels set in West Cumbria, Cruel Tide and Fatal Reckoning. Will they want to see more of DS Penrose? Or will they be hankering to see familiar faces and familiar territory ?
It will be the new readers, those from beyond Cumbria, who will find a fascinating and surprisingly grim picture behind the picture postcard views of the Lake District. Sutton knows how to do realism.