Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

Sister act…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A hot-air balloon is drifting over Northumberland, carrying the pilot and twelve sightseers. Jessica and her sister, Bella, now better known as Sister Maria Magdalena of Wynding Priory, are two of the party – a treat for Bella’s birthday. As they silently pass over an isolated farmhouse, Jessica sees a man killing a young woman – and then the man looks up and spots Jessica. By this time everyone in the balloon is watching the man. He only has one option – to kill them all…

No-one writes more entertaining thrillers than Sharon Bolton when she’s on top form – and yet again, she’s on top form with this standalone. We know from the prologue that the balloon crashes leaving only one survivor. The police soon identify her as Jessica Lane, but she has walked away from the crash and they can’t find her. They don’t know why she’s made no effort to contact the authorities – perhaps she’s badly hurt or concussed and confused. So the search is on. But the killer also knows there’s a survivor, and he’s determined to get to her first. But maybe she has reasons for not wanting to be found…

The thing is that you’d imagine that twelve corpses before we even get past the prologue might make this quite a harrowing read. But not at all! Bolton negotiates the difficult task of marrying together a serious plot with some delicious humour to keep the whole thing enjoyable. Bolton doesn’t ignore the grief that the survivor feels for the death of her sister, but the need to survive means she has to put it aside as much as possible and concentrate on getting to safety. The underlying story is actually quite dark and there is some gore, but Bolton doesn’t linger over it in too much detail. If you think too much about the plot, it does cross pretty far over the credibility line in several places, but Bolton doesn’t give you time to think about it – she races the story along, with some fine characterisation, some twists that are perfectly timed and believable within the context, and lots and lots of action.

The secret is in the writing. Once you reach the end and look back, it’s so much fun to see how cleverly Bolton has misled and misdirected all the way through – never cheating though! She never once says anything that is inconsistent with the solution – she just says it in such a way that you don’t spot it at the time. Delicious!

As a result, though, it’s not an easy one to write a review about since almost anything is a potential spoiler, so I won’t say any more about the plot. But I must mention the nuns, especially the wonderful Sister Belinda, who is my favourite character of the year so far! Bella and Jessica had been very close so Jessica is well known to the other nuns and a favourite amongst them. So the police feel it’s quite possible that if Jessica is confused, she might make for the convent as a place of safety. Sister Belinda is an avid watcher of old TV police dramas of The Sweeney variety in her recreation time, so she has a fabulously clichéd vocabulary picked up from these shows and is super excited to get the chance to put her ‘expertise’ to use during the investigation. She’s just so much fun…

The sound of running footsteps made them all start. Then the refectory door opened and the round, freckled face of Sister Belinda appeared. She was breathing heavily, and her veil was crooked, showing short tufts of red hair sprouting around her glowing face like unruly weeds in a parched garden.

“Excuse me, Mother, Sisters,” she said. “But there is a police car waiting at the gate and what looks like the Black Maria behind it. Also, another car approaching from the farm and a uniformed constable coming in via the beach path. It would appear that the filth have us surrounded.”

Loved this one! A perfect mix of dark and light, superbly clever plotting, constant action and hugely entertaining – you can expect to see Bolton appear yet again on my shortlist for Crime Book of the Year.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bantam Press.

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73 thoughts on “Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

      • Thanks so much for this recommendation; such an enjoyable and compelling read. As you commented, the dark themes are so well balanced with entertaining characters, wonderful writing and a very satisfying plot. In the strange intersection of fiction and life that sometimes occurs: the same weekend I was reading this story, I found an account (in a recently published book) of my grandmother, a postulant (aspiring nun) at the time, scrambling to try and climb over the priory wall! The fact that she emigrated from Ireland to be a missionary sister here (and later left the convent) was known to me, but the book gave some new insights into her early adventures – fictional and historical sisters came strangely together in my weekend reading!

        • So glad you enjoyed it! She’s brilliant at doing this kind of entertaining thriller without them ever feeling cosy. Ha! I love the image of your grandmother trying to escape over the priory wall! What book is the story in? I thought Bolton’s nuns were great – she managed to make them humorous without really making fun of them somehow. So often nuns get treated badly in literature as either cruel or fanatical, but these ones were just human. Made a pleasant change!.

          • The book is Susannah Grant’s recently published Windows on a Women’s World. And yes, I also appreciate how Bolton captured the sense of a community of women, as Grant did in her accounts of real life.

            • It looks fascinating – the kind of quirky subject that I often think tells you more about a place than actual histories do. It’s a shame these old convents are dying out – I know we only tend to hear about the scandals these days, but these places have often done a lot of quiet good in their communities.

            • I came through schools taught by nuns and I’ve always been fascinated by the actual social and psychological dynamics of this isolated (isolating) and committed shared living amongst women. These days, to my knowledge, there are no/few new professions into the orders, and existing sisters in the orders I am aware of have the new challenge of working out how they live (with a few others, alone) and how they live out their lives of religious commitment in community settings and no trappings of distinguishing habits. I wonder how many religious communities there are still in Ireland, the source of many of the orders which developed in NZ last century.

            • I think there are still quite a few, but I expect they’re facing similar problems – there have been so many scandals and though the Catholic church is still stronger there than in a lot of other places, even there people seem to be breaking away now. I was a bit staggered when they voted to legalise gay marriage in a referendum a couple of years ago, for instance. Speaking as an atheist, I think we’re in danger of throwing the baby out with the bath-water, though – for all their faults, churches and religious orders have been at the heart of communities for centuries and provided a kind of moral and social centre, and so far atheism has offered no comparable alternatives.

            • I agree. I have known so many people whose religious beliefs have supported them to live socially responsible and socially connected lives with a strong sense of underlying purpose – these good influences have been very real in the lives of many, just as, unfortunately, abuses through the church have left some others with long term hurt and damage. While I did not take religious beliefs into adulthood, I do appreciate the early introduction to moral and social awareness and cultural contexts that my early experience of Catholicism gave me. I have also valued what Biblical knowledge I have as it’s so often an underlying allusion in literature. Despite valuing these things, I could not bring my children into religious contexts when I no longer held these beliefs. We did try and connect with a Unitarian group for a while as I sought to give my children some ‘higher’ context, but it didn’t have the same resonances for me as my earlier church experience, so it didn’t last. I suppose that, as in any other aspects of human lives, we can’t go back and have to find meaningful ways to achieve our human and higher purposes within our present cultural contexts – I don’t feel we’ve achieved that yet…

            • I was brought up by two atheist parents – they didn’t prevent us from going to church if we wanted to and because it was such a big part of the community each of us did for a period of time at least, but it didn’t stick to any of us. I do wish I had a better knowledge of the Bible though, since as you say it’s so present in much of our art and literature. I tried to read it a couple of years ago, but sadly found myself harrumphing too much and stopped – I really dislike the kind of atheist who’s always running other people’s faith down, and was afraid if I read much more I might become one of them! But I do think we need to find some other way of creating that kind of social cohesiveness and an agreed moral code again…

  1. Ha! This sounds great! Loads of corpses, humour and Sweeney references. Very, VERY unsure about the nun element, of course. Absolutely love the sound of the plot, the characters, the writing… bugger. It’s going to have to go on my list 🙂

  2. Awesome review! I did the same thing….went back and read parts to see how she pulled off completely fooling me and you’re so right, her misdirection was just spot on and I breezed right over certain things. Loved this and it will also be in my top 10 no doubt about it!!

    • Thank you! Haha – I know, she led me right up the garden path for most of the book, and I never even noticed! So clever! And those nuns were so much fun – a great book… 😀

  3. Oh, this looks fantastic, FictionFan! Not that I would have thought otherwise about Bolton’s writing, but still! The balloon ride is so interesting as a premise, too. I’m very glad you enjoyed this as much as you did. Now it looks as though I’ll have to sneak this one in when my TBR isn’t looking…

    • The description of the balloon flight and crash is brilliant – so tense. She gets such a good balance between the more serious stuff and the entertaining side – your TBR will thank you for adding this one… 😉

  4. My friend who is a nun is coming to stay this weekend – I hope we don’t have a murder! This one sounds a riot!

  5. Well, doggone it, another one for my TBR! This one sounds excellent — a perfect mix of fast-paced story, good writing, and subtle humor. Okay, I’m convinced!!

    • Ah, this is definitely a goodie! I love when a book manages to be both serious and entertaining at the same time, and Bolton’s brilliant at it! Hope you enjoy it 😀

    • She really is great at this kind of thriller – I like them better than her police procedurals to be honest. It’s the humour – keeps them entertaining rather than the grim misery of so many crime novels at the moment. 🙂

  6. I love Sharon Bolton and am hoping to read this one soon, so I’m pleased you’ve given it such a great review! I’m looking forward to meeting Sister Belinda. 🙂

    • You’ll love Sister Belinda – I defy anyone not to love her! Bolton’s such a great writer and I was thinking while reading this that I actually prefer her standalones to her Lacey Flints, I think. Enjoy this one – I’m sure you will! 😀

  7. I think Sister Belinda gets my character of the year award too! Wasn’t this just the most wonderful read – as you say not entirely credible but such good fun and so well plotted that any misgivings were swept away!

    • Sister Belinda’s fab, isn’t she? In fact, I loved all the nuns – I thought she made them very human. I mean, I know nuns are human but… OK, I’m going to stop digging now! Yep, when she’s on top form nobody can beat her for this kind of book. I think I actually prefer the standalones to the Lacey Flints… maybe. 😀

  8. My review will be posted tomorrow 😀 Loved the book, did guess the twist (because of some of the things she said) but it was so amazing!!!

    • Looking forward to it! I kinda guessed very late on, but I still wasn’t totally sure, and I was so impressed that she’d kept me in the dark for as long as she did – and made it all so entertaining! Great stuff!

  9. Oh no! another book I must read – I love Sharon Bolton’s books and set in Northumberland (where I live). The balloon reminds me of the balloon accident in McEwan’s Enduring Love – the balloon was floating over the Chilterns, where I used to live!

    • Oh, that’s right! Right over your head! You must read this then – it’ll have you checking the skies to see who might be watching you from above… 😉 Gosh, it’s years since I read Enduring Love – that was the book that got me into McEwan way back. Really must make more time for re-reading…

  10. Wow – that sounds bonkers! (In a good way!) I have wanted to read her for a while now, so maybe I should start with this standalone. Amazon tells me that it’s not available in the US till September.

    • It’s great, and would be a fab one to start with! I think the Kindle copy is out over there already, and the Audible version is due out next month, I believe. But actually her last one was fantastic too and would also be great to start with – Daisy in Chains. It only just missed out on being my Book of the Year last year…

  11. Do you know that part in the film The Sound of Music when when the nuns take parts from the Nazis cars and then confess, “I have sinned, Mother” and shows the thieved car parts in their meek yet sneaky hands? That’s how I’m picturing the nuns in this book! I love when a harrowing tale can also be funny. I laughed so hard when Zora Neale Hurston recounts in her autobiography that she tried to chop her step-mother into bits with an ax.

    • Yes, indeed! I think she’s appeared in my ‘Best of’ list every year since I started blogging, and she’s one of the very few I start reading as soon as I can get my hands on it… 🙂

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