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THE DROWNING GROUND by James Marrison: Book Review

Three teenage girls, missing.  One stepmother, dead.  One father, dead.  What do they have in common?

Moreton-in-Marsh is a small market town in the English Cotswolds, certainly too small to have so many disappearances and deaths. But the string that ties them together is slowly being unraveled by Detective Chief Inspector Guillermo Downes and his new partner, Detective Graves.

The first death is deemed accidental, that of Sarah Hurst.  She was the second wife of Frank Hurst and stepmother to his teenage daughter Rebecca.  All the people in Moreton knew that Sarah spent every afternoon lying in the sun next to the swimming pool on the Hurst family estate.  By the time she was found at the deep end of the pool by the family’s housekeeper and was pulled into the shallow end, she was already dead.  The verdict:  accidental drowning.

That was five years before the opening of James Marrison’s excellent debut mystery, The Drowning Ground.  Since then, two young teenage girls have gone missing from their homes, and seventeen-year-old Rebecca Hurst left for London and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.  Then, on the day after Sergeant Graves arrives in Moreton for his new assignment, Frank Hurst is found in his field, skewered through the neck with a pitchfork.

Frank had become a recluse after the disappearance of his only child.  His life certainly had been tragic enough to explain him removing himself from the world–both his first and second wives died, and his daughter disappeared without a word or a trace.  Frank employed a private investigator for years, desperately trying to find Rebecca, his only clue being the very infrequent postcards he received from her from London.  The investigator, however, had no luck, unable to find even a trace of the girl after she left home.

There’s not much mourning in Moreton-in-Marsh for Frank Hurst.  He always was a strange man, quick with his fists and unfriendly to all his neighbors.  Even the brutal manner of his death does little to elicit sympathy, a fact that the newly-arrived detective finds shocking.  But Detective Chief Inspector Downes tells Graves that there’s always been the feeling that Frank was guilty of his second wife’s murder, even though it was officially ruled an accident and Frank had an ironclad alibi.  However, the gossip continued and got even worse as Hurst locked himself in his house, seldom to be seen outside it.

Then, the night after Hurst’s death, his house is set on fire, burned down to it studs.  And a body is discovered in a hidden room below ground, opening old wounds and suspicions.

James Marrison has written a masterful novel.  It’s filled with interesting characters, from the mother of one of the missing girls to the Hurst’s housekeeper who has returned to pay her respects at her late employer’s funeral to the psychologist who saw young Rebecca over a period of years.

The protagonists in The Drowning Ground, both Downes and Graves, are wonderfully portrayed.  Downes is a bit of a mystery, a man born in Buenos Aires of a Argentinian mother and an English father.  What led him to leave his homeland and make a life for himself in this small English town?  Perhaps the answer will be revealed in the next novel in the series, something I’m eagerly anticipating.

You can read more about James Marrison at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.