Douglas Skelton – Where Demons Hide
Published by Polygon Books, paperback £8.99. It is also now available in ebook, and an audiobook is scheduled to arrive in August. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes.
You can read my reviews of the previous novels in the series elsewhere on the blog: Thunder Bay, The Blood Is Still, A Rattle Of Bones. The author was also a guest in the Five By Five interview series; which you can read here.
First, the official blurb: Something scared Nuala Flaherty to death. When her body is found in the centre of a pentagram on a lonely moor, Rebecca is determined to find out what. Was she killed by supernatural means, or is there a more down-to-earth explanation? Rebecca’s investigation leads her to a mysterious cult and local drug dealings. But what she doesn’t know is that crime matriarch Mo Burke still has her in her crosshairs. Mo wants payback for the death of her son, and after one failed attempt to hurt Rebecca, she is upping the ante. And this time, it could be lethal.
Back in 2019, I reviewed Thunder Bay, the first in the Rebecca Connolly series from Douglas Skelton for The Scotsman books section, and called it “a powerful and compelling novel”. The two novels since then, The Blood Is Still and A Rattle Of Bones – the latter of which, like Thunder Bay, was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize – have built on that excellent foundation and become a series that crime fiction fans should seek out.
Fourth instalment Where Demons Hide opens back on Stoirm, the fictional island at the heart of Thunder Bay, with a woman running for her life from a mysterious “it” hunting her. With that first short chapter, Skelton puts the reader one step ahead – but there’s plenty that isn’t revealed until much later on, so don’t get too complacent.
Meanwhile, reporter Rebecca Connolly is in Inverness, planning a return to the island for the wedding of her friends Chaz and Alan, who are already in situ – and, thanks to Chaz’s father being the local GP, are on the fringes of a crime scene, as the local cops find the body of the woman found dead on the moors in strange surroundings. She is Nuala Flaherty, weird and slightly witch-y, who has been renting a cottage on the island for some months.
Ahead of her trip, Rebecca is interviewing a psychic who helped find a missing boy after seeing him in a vision. Tabitha disarms Rebecca’s scepticism by freely admitting she has no idea how her gift works – and then unnerves our intrepid reporter by speaking of her past, and warning her that someone hates her, to a level beyond the fact she’s a journalist.
That someone is Mo Burke, crime family matriarch and holding the gang together while her husband and one son are in jail – her other son is dead and buried, for which she blames Rebecca bitterly. She has been a very real threat in previous novels, but it’s still shocking to see her decision to call in “professional help”.
Elsewhere on Stoirm is Delia, who came to the island to join Children of the Dell in its Sanctuary – she gave up her job as a media firm executive, divorced her husband and left her family behind, and liquidated her considerable assets to hand over, as “Sanctuary will provide”. It’s a cult, essentially. Delia has been warned there is something rotten at the heart of Sanctuary, and her probing is not looked upon kindly by those behind the scenes.
While police from the mainland investigate Nuala’s death, Chaz and Alan do their own nosing around and make a few deductions. While Tabitha says of Nuala’s death, “if you believe in these things [ie, demons], they can be very real”, our gang are in the Scully camp: a person was responsible for essentially frightening the life out of her. Where Demons Hide? Where they hide so often is in plain sight, behind a mask of humanity.
There are lots of strands, flitting between Stoirm, Inverness, and other places as well as between groups of characters, and they continue on their separate ways for a good portion of the book before they knit together. Sometimes I struggled to keep everything clear, but now and then Skelton pops in a neat little recap via chats between characters. So, you do have to pay attention, but you will be rewarded. And though all the information you need is included, those who have read the earlier books – particularly Thunder Bay – will get a richer experience knowing the full back stories.
Skelton is clear-eyed about life in a remote island community – long memories and strong ties; secrets are held for generations but gossip spreads lightning-fast. And of course there are varying levels of tolerance for outsiders and those who, like Chaz and Alan, who don’t conform to other people’s expectations. But amid the darker moments there is plenty of humour to be found, much of it in the easy, off-hand banter between friends – they are relaxed with each other, and Skelton has relaxed into these relationships after dialling back hard on the jokes in Thunder Bay.
The central relationships are particularly important in a series – the best way to get people rereading books and following a series is to create compelling characters for them to spend time with, and Skelton has ticked that box firmly. Relationships of all kinds are also at the heart of both why Nuala was interested in Sanctuary and why she was killed.
The ending is part uplifting for Rebecca, and part blackly funny, though a few threads were left agonisingly loose so I hope they are fully resolved at some point.
There were times I was frustrated in being moved around between locations so often, and I could have done with a little less of Rebecca’s angst-y thoughts about her love life – she needs to talk to her friends, not just herself about it! I was also surprised that despite the occult (and cult) theme, there was no link back to the witches and witch trials of the past, in a series that has used Scottish history and myth to an effective extent previously.
But these are minor niggles because I’m comparing it with the strength of the series overall. My favourite of the four Rebecca Connolly books so far remains A Rattle Of Bones, but Where Demons Hide is a great episode in a series that is going from strength to strength, and anyone looking for a gripping slice of Tartan Noir with a difference should look no further.
Douglas Skelton was born in Glasgow. He has been a bank clerk, tax officer, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for two hours), journalist and investigator. He has written several true crime and Scottish criminal history books but now concentrates on fiction. He has written four novels featuring Davie McCall (the final one, Open Wounds, was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize in 2016) and two featuring Dominic Queste, all of which were based in Scotland, and a New York-set standalone, The Janus Run. The first Rebecca Connolly novel, Thunder Bay, was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize in 2019. It was followed by The Blood Is Still and A Rattle of Bones, which was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize this year. He is the writer behind the Carry On Sleuthing comic plays, and one-quarter of the Four Blokes In Search Of A Plot, who create a story live from audience suggestions. Douglas will be appearing at Bute Noir on Friday 5 August, and is in conversation with Michael J Malone at Waterstones Livingston on 28 July.
A shorter version of this review first appeared in Scotland On Sunday on 10 July and on the scotsman.com website, as I was commissioned by the paper’s books editor to write a review, for which I was paid. Being paid does not change how I write a review, nor did the person who commissioned it have any influence on what I wrote.