Crime Novel Review: Holy Island by LJ Ross

After a long absence enforced by having to read a lot of non-fiction, EJ Knight returns with a review of the bestselling Holy Island by LJ Ross, whose author has been described by one reviewer as ‘the queen of Kindle’.

I’m always interested in other writers who have mastered the direct or independent publishing route, not least to see whether they have used the route to circumvent agency/publisher processes with strong genre material, or used the independence to try something startlingly innovative that a commercially-minded publisher would not have the guts to take a risk with. LJ Ross falls into the former category, embracing the geography well known to readers of Ann Cleeves’ Vera series, with a series starring Detective Chief Inspector Ryan.

The first in the series, Holy Island, is set around the winter solstice on the mystical and historic Holy Island of Lindisfarne, its intense community cut off twice daily by the sea that swells over the causeway. DCI Ryan, sequestered there with demons of loss from a recent case, finds his unsettled isolation brutally disrupted by the murder of a local teenager, whose body is arranged in a clinically ritualistic manner. Ryan gets himself reinstated on the grounds of geographical convenience, but must negotiate with the input of a former island resident and expert on paganism to whom he becomes reluctantly attracted. As another murder is committed and the ritualistic elements become more complicated, Ryan encounters the complexities of a community that has one face for the outside world and another that looks inwards.

As other KDP success stories Rachel Abbott and Mel Sherratt have shown, the direct publishing market is a really effective one for genre crime, whatever that expression really means now with so many sub-strands, and LJ Ross has certainly taken her place in that roll call. Is this novel fluent and readable? Yes. Is it a pageturner? Mostly yes. Does it break new ground? Not really. The attraction between Ryan and the pagan expert Anna Taylor feels inevitable and its final consequences are predictable. The layers of interpersonal complexity and the impact of a tight-knit community on social identities and people’s choices are also not particularly surprising, and the small tragedies of village life are not unexpected. As the novel unwinds in the last third and the emotional relationships tighten up, I felt the plot became increasingly diffuse and with it the resolution of the murders.

There are some clever twists, but oddly the one thing that kept bothering me throughout was that this novel would somehow damage the reputation of Holy Island as a beautiful and restorative place. I can see Ross’s motivation for undoing the mysticism with reality and deconstructing the myth of spirituality with the liberal brutality of human motive (I’m sure my fellow allonymbooks author Evie Woolmore would also have something to say on that). But the pagan ‘expert’ doesn’t actually offer that much to Ryan’s understanding of what’s happening on the island, nor does Ross use Anna’s specialist knowledge to exploit the slippery interface between the predictable and the unpredictable. Furthermore, Ryan keeps control throughout the case because Ross remains in police procedural territory; Ryan surely should be much nearer the edge of his comfort zone but instead Anna is essentially his safety net which, given her personal situation in the novel, felt unlikely to me.

 

I can absolutely see why this has been successful, and with regard to a very early post that Evie made about pricing, I don’t think that does any harm either. Will I buy another? Probably not. But many people have enjoyed this book, because it is what it says it is. Solid crime fiction.

***

EJ Knight is the author of Broadway Murder of 1928.

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