Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher

The Killing Woods is British author, Lucy Christopher's third novel. Like her first novel, Stolen, is a novel combining the elements of suspense and mystery. In this novel, Christopher takes on themes of loyalty, truth and justice.

On a Friday night in late August, Emily Shepherd is shocked to see her dad carrying a young girl out of Darkwood forest, near their home. That girl, Ashlee Parker, a classmate of Emily's, is dead and her father, an ex-army man is the only suspect. Emily's father who has been honorably discharged from the military has been suffering from PTSD after an insurgent incident in which he killed a 16 year old civilian. Police believe that Emily's father murdered Ashlee during a flashback episode. But Emily can't believe her father is responsible.

On the Saturday morning following Ashlee's murder, Damon Hilary awakens to find himself hungover and not able to remember the events of the night before when he and girlfriend Ashlee played "the Game" in Darkwood forest. "The Game" was originally a type of war game that Damon played in Darkwood with his buddies, Mack Jenkins, Charlie Jones and Ed Wilkes, all of them intending on enlisting in the army some day. They each wore dog collars with the object of the game being to avoid being caught first and to capture the other players' collars. The game is usually accompanied by drinking and drugs. When Ashlee became Damon's girlfriend she was keen to join in, telling Damon that she too was intending to sign up with the military.

Damon is stunned to learn from Mack that Ashlee was found murdered in Darkwood forest by Emily Shepherd's father who is now charged with her murder.  No matter how hard he tries, Damon cannot remember what happened that night that might have led to Ashlee's death. He remembers Ashlee drinking and doing  the drugs that Ashlee brought with her and that she left to take the short way back home but that is all. He has no memory of how he got home.

At school in October, Damon, who is a prefect, breaks up a fight between Emily and another classmate. As a detention, Damon has Emily meet him in Darkwood at a place called the Leap, planning to make her run hard and also to question her. Emily is warned by her friend Joe not to take Damon up on his offer, but Emily feels that Damon who was the last person to see Emily alive that night knows the truth of what happened.

Emily meets Damon in Darkwood, determined to question him about that night in August. Although her mother has all but given up on Emily's father, she cannot. Damon too has questions for Emily. He is surprised by Emily's ability to run and, worse, he is troubled by her staunch belief that her father did not kill Ashlee.

This creates tremendous conflict for Damon who is beginning to suspect that something happened that night during the game and that he might be responsible. Damon realizes he has to try to remember what happened the night Ashlee died so to that end he arranges for his friends, Mack, Charlie and Ed to meet him at Darkwood to play the Game again as a sort of memorial to Ashlee. This helps to bring back bits and pieces of his memory that lead to only more questions.

Emily meanwhile investigates the bunker that her father frequented when he visited Darkwood. She finds drawings over the walls of the bunker and later on finds a drawing in her father's car of a deer being chased by a wolf. This drawing deeply upsets Emily because she feels the deer looks like Ashlee and the wolf like her father. Emily is determined to understand what this drawing means and whether or not she needs to show  the police. Can Emily and Damon, working to find answers, solve the mystery of what happened that fateful night in Darkwood?

Christopher has crafted a unique mystery, telling her story using the narratives of Emily and Damon. Emily is a character who is loyal to her father and her love for him pushes her to work to discover the truth about the night Ashlee died. The police are too willing to accept the theory that Emily's father experienced a flashback triggered by the lightning and thunder of the storm. Her mother is also willing to accept this scenario and is ready to abandon Emily's father and "move on" to another town to start over. But Emily cannot. Despite his post-traumatic stress disorder, Emily still believes the man who is her father would not kill.

Damon on the other hand is driven by the need to know if he could have killed his girlfriend, Ashlee. Damon is shallow, self-centered and seems somewhat irresponsible. He was the last person to see Ashlee alive and presumably he left her drunk, alone in Darkwood to find her way home. What kind of boyfriend does that make him? One wonders about his motivation for discovering the truth, is it his troubled conscience and does he really care that Emily's father is in jail for a murder he might not have committed?  Damon decides to recreate, to the best of his ability, the events of that night by returning to Darkwood with his friends. While he regains some of his memory and this only strengthens his belief that he was somehow involved, Damon doesn't run away, but continues to search for the truth.

The author gradually uncovers the mystery through the experiences of Emily and Damon, and while the truth of how Ashlee died that night provides the twist to this novel, the solution to the mystery is really not so unpredictable.

The main weakness in this novel seems to be the incident involving the discovery of Ashlee's cell phone and its ability to function months after being exposed to the elements. Damon's discovery of Ashlee's phone and what it comes to mean for him are important to the storyline. The issue is mainly whether a cell phone would function at all months after exposure or whether it would have had to have been taken to the police and a forensic investigator. It would seem that one of the most significant parts of the investigation into Ashlee's death would have been the recovery of her phone, yet we hear nothing about this at the beginning of the novel.

Despite this, Lucy Christopher has written yet another engaging novel, dealing with an unusual social issue, that draws readers in with a good opening chapter and well formed characters. Readers will want to read on to discover what really happened that night.

Book Details:
The Killing Woods by Lucy Christopher
Frome, Somerset, UK: Chicken House an imprint of Scholastic Inc.
359 pp.

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