Review: From The Ashes

Deborah Masson – From The Ashes (Blog Tour)

Author Deborah Masson

Published by Penguin Books, paperback £8.99; also available in ebook. I received a proof copy of the novel from the publisher for review purposes. Many thanks to Anne Cater at Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.

First, the official blurb: As the house burns, the hunt for a killer begins… In the dead of night someone starts a fire in a home for underprivileged children in Aberdeen. The flames spread quickly, and one person doesn’t make it out alive. But the victim wasn’t found in their bedroom; they were discovered locked inside a secret basement underground. As DI Eve Hunter and her team search the blackened ruins, the case takes them into even darker territory. Soon Eve unearths a horrific discovery at the heart of the property – one that turns the whole investigation on its head. Everyone in this home has something to hide, but who has a secret worth killing for?

Deborah Masson first popped onto my radar when she won the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize in 2020, and it’s a fine novel, with intrigue, emotion and well-formed characters, as well as a sparky plot. Out For Blood, the second DI Eve Hunter novel, awaits my attention, but I couldn’t resist joining the blog tour for book three – especially as it has been longlisted for this year’s McIlvanney Prize.

Being caught in a house fire is something I, like many people, have a healthy fear of, so the opening chapter sends a shiver down any spine. Our fire-raiser may be unidentified, but the havoc they wreak is starkly obvious.

DI Eve Hunter gets a call from dispatch the next morning – the fire was in a small, privately-run children’s home, deliberately set. But that’s not the worst: one boy was killed, his body found in a basement accessed by a heavy trapdoor which was closed, leaving no way he could escape – though there are signs he’d tried desperately to do so. There’s also another discovery made by firefighters in the basement…

Meanwhile, DC Scott Ferguson is driving to work when a bakery van a few vehicles ahead of him in traffic crashes after hitting a young male pedestrian. He carries no identification, but there’s something about him that Ferguson feels drawn to and though technically the case belongs to the traffic team, he can’t stop himself from getting involved – to the detriment of the work he’s supposed to be doing on the fire case. It’s an obsession that is fed by his past, and only gets more intense when he finds out the young man’s recent history.

The children’s home, Wellwood, is small – just a few youngsters and a handful of staff, under Stephen Alderton. The boy who died is Lucas, just 11. He’s in care as his mum died and his father was found not fit to look after him – each of the children has a similar story of neglect and a search for a stable home life, all too sadly realistic. 

There are also short snippets from “Then”, showing a glimpse of life in the house under its previous owners which was far from what we’d hope it would be, with the hints given concrete footing in an interview with a woman who once lived in the house and describes abuse both physical and psychological, and its lasting effects on many of those she knew then.

The kids from the Then snippets, a teenage girl new to the house and a boy who’d been there longer, vanished at the same time – the assumption being they’d run away together. But that wasn’t the whole story, as becomes clear as Hunter and her team delve more deeply. There are, inevitably, links between the children’s home and the accident victim, and plenty of revelations from the past and present about the house and its occupants which take us up to the final scenes of jeopardy and justice.

You get all the background you need on Hunter here, from her unusual hobby to the events of her life that led her to join the force, so don’t feel you can’t dive straight in with this book – but I suspect you’ll want to catch up with the earlier novels once you’re done here. Her team are all professional, though not without their quirks, and Masson’s preference for bringing some into the spotlight and leaving others in the ensemble means we’re not juggling too many names yet not being short-changed on character work.

The abuse of the past is not dwelt upon, this isn’t a misery memoir. It’s more about can you overcome the trauma of childhood, and why kids who have had awful experiences in their family home so badly need somewhere safe to be – somewhere that can be a surrogate family, as the kids in the home are. The cops are another kind of family; arguing and far from perfect, but together in the tough times. 

It’s a fast read, pages turning all the time. And while there are a couple of strands to the plot, it’s quite refreshing not to be holding six disparate ideas in your head, flitting between six points of view in six places, and trying to fit them together. The ending could be a little clearer on the detail and motivation of why this person chooses this time for their actions, but I am really only nitpicking here because everything that went before was so clear and flowing.

Masson deserved her Debut Prize win and deserves her McIlvanney Prize longlisting – she may not win this year, but I have no doubt she will one year, as her writing is becoming more assured. Carry on in that vein and the only way is up.

Deborah Masson was born and bred in Aberdeen. Always restless and fighting against being a responsible adult, she worked in several jobs including secretarial, marketing, reporting for the city’s freebie newspaper and a stint as a postie, to name but a few. Through it all, she always read crime fiction and, when motherhood finally settled her into being an adult (maybe even a responsible one) she turned her hand to writing what she loved. Deborah started with short stories and flash fiction, then decided to challenge her writing further through online courses with Professional Writing Academy and Faber Academy, where she wrote her debut novel Hold Your Tongue, the first in the DI Eve Hunter series, which won the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize in 2020. This was followed by Out For Blood and From the Ashes, longlisted for the 2022 McIlvanney Prize. She is also part of the Caledonia Crime Collective, a group of Scottish crime writers.

You can follow the author on Twitter here: @deborah_masson

Don’t forget to catch up with all the reviews on the blog tour!

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