Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 304 pages; 2009. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
A good, thoroughly believable crime thriller doesn’t come much better than this. In Burial, Neil Cross has delivered one of those realistically chilling reads that makes your skin break out in goosebumps.
Cross, who has a handful of novels to his name, including the 2004 Booker long-listed Always the Sun, knows how to create a rising sense of fear and paranoia. Not surprising, then, that he’s been lead scriptwriter on the BBC spy-drama series Spooks for the past two series.
In this novel, Cross tells what appears to be a perfectly ordinary story that goes off on a dark and disturbing tangent.
It’s about Nathan, a young man, who attends a Christmas party, hosted by his boss, a late-night radio DJ, that turns out to be the worst night of his life. High on cocaine and booze, Nathan and his friend Bob momentarily leave the party with an attractive girl called Elise. In a car parked in the nearby woods they take turns having sex with her. But things go horribly wrong and Elise dies. The pair hatch a plan to bury the body and return to the party as if nothing has happened.
When Elise is reported missing by her family the next day, a police investigation ensues. Suspicion is cast on the DJ but no-one is charged with the crime — and no body is ever found. Nathan and Bob seem to have got away with it, although their relationship is fractured and they make a deal never to see each other again.
Fast forward 15 years and one night there’s a knock on Nathan’s door. It’s Bob with some bad news: developers are about to dig up the woods where they buried the body in order to build a housing estate. Their carefully constructed lives are about to be torn asunder…
The cover-up of a dastardly crime by two men who should know better might sound like a relatively straight forward plot, but there’s a few additional complications which would spoil the story if I were to reveal them here. But what I can say is that the character of Nathan is brilliantly realised. He’s a man with a guilty secret plagued by a conscience that won’t let up. His remorse is so great that he becomes afraid of the dark and has to cover the bathroom mirror for fear he might catch a glimpse of Elise’s ghost staring back at him. You get the very real impression that he’s sorry for what he did, but not sorry enough to come clean to the authorities.
My only quibble is that the book does tend to read a little like a screenplay. There’s a lot of telling and not much show, but who cares when you get to experience such a beautifully realised story arc? From its slightly slow beginning through to its meaty middle and perfectly satisfactory ending, Burial is a masterpiece of storytelling in the heart-hammering, sweaty palms vein. I very much enjoyed it — and if it’s ever turned into a TV drama I’ll be the first to sit down and watch it! If you’re looking for a fast-paced, chilling read then definitely add this one to your list.