Do you remember the first time you watched the film "Blade Runner"? Set in a dystopian future Los Angeles, almost entirely at night, the film redefined what could be meant by the word "atmospheric". "Willow Walk" by SJI Holliday achieves the same dark feel. Gone is a future Los Angeles. Instead we find ourselves in a small fictitious town of Banktoun, not far to the south east of Edinburgh. And gone is the wholly nocturnal setting, but this does nothing to undermine the truly dark journey the reader embarks upon as they turn to the first page of the book. And which they emerge from, gripped and more than a little spooked, as they finish the last page.
Anyone approaching "Willow Walk" in the expectation they are about to read another Tartan Noir whodunit will find their expectation rapidly confounded, and at the same time surpassed. This is a psychologically complex novel that takes the reader on a journey through the mind of a psychopath, though a psychopath we encounter largely through the eyes and the memories of others, and through letters he has written. The starting point is straightforward, if horrific, enough. A woman is brutally attacked on a lonely country road by an escaped inmate from a nearby psychiatric hospital. Local policeman Sergeant Davie Gray has to track the attacker down, preferably before he strikes again.
But Sergeant Gray has other problems to contend with. He is trying to track down the source of drugs that have caused a series of deaths, and in the meantime he is trying to come to terms with the increasingly strange behaviour of his girlfriend Marie. The story builds across three central strands. We follow Sergeant Gray as he tries to catch an attacker and to bring the drug deaths to an end. We also see the story through Marie's frightened eyes, and from the point of view of Laura, a girl living in Banktoun whose new boyfriend becomes involved in shady dealings at a travelling fair. For much of the book we are at least one step ahead of Gray, which leads to the reader (this reader, anyway) urging him on to connect elements whose links have already been revealed to us. Can Davie make the connections in time to prevent the different strands of the story colliding in a cataclysmic way?
"Blade Runner" is famous for having several different cuts, and in at least one of them the atmosphere that has been so carefully built throughout the film is dissipated in a brightly sunlit final scene conveying an unambiguously happy ending. In contrast, "Willow Walk" carries its superbly dark atmosphere right to the end. And is that end a happy one? You'll have to read it yourself to find out.