Ordained Baptist minister Peter Laws (right) has produced a 110mph debut crime thriller featuring Matt Hunter, a former clergyman and now devout sceptic who, like most fictional crime consultants, has special skills which make him invaluable to the police in murder cases. I don’t know if Laws has himself gone down the same Road to Damascus In Reverse as his fictional character, but the depth and bitterness of Hunter’s scepticism about God and all His works certainly makes for compelling reading.
Hunter is in a seemingly idyllic Oxfordshire village with his family, taking a sabbatical while his architect wife prepares to put in her bid for the contract to build an extension to Hobbs Hill church. If you are expecting a saintly country vicar with kindly eyes and a dwindling congregation, you will be in for a rude awakening. This church has become home to a congregation of over three hundred, and is led by a charismatic minister who goes in for full-immersion Baptism and the kind of wild call-and-response services which seem to be de rigeur in ‘new’ churches.
First, an anorexic teenage girl goes missing, and then a lesbian artist who is in the terminal throes of stomach cancer disappears. Matt Hunter is sucked into the investigation via the simple ruse that photos of the missing women turn up as attachments in his email box. They stay there for a few hours but then mysteriously morph into pictures of a rainbow accompanied by a smiley face GIF.
The slightly manic minister of the Hobbs Hill church is no stranger to Matt Hunter. He and Chris Kelly studied together at bible college, where Kelly was an awkward and unpopular student due to his fervent proselytising and strange behaviour. Hunter tries his best to be diplomatic with the over-intense church folk, if only to help his wife get the design commission, but when the isolated cottage where his family are staying becomes the target of sinister visitors, he senses that there is something malign lurking beneath the joyous born-again aura of Kelly and his congregation.
Peter Laws captures the essence of New Age Christian church groups in all their arm-waving, eyeball-rolling, tongues-speaking exuberance. We have the obligatory performance stage, complete with sound-system and live rock group, and every single man woman and child in the congregation has a steely determination to play The Ancient Mariner and grasp innocent visitors by the arm to save their souls from eternal damnation.
The concept of a small community gripped by a pervasive religious cult is not new. We have been there many times, and our tour guides have included Stephen King, John Connolly, Phil Rickman and John Wyndham. Laws grabs the cliché with great enthusiasm, and manages to conjure up menace from ostensibly benign surroundings. He also spins the tale cleverly so that we are persuaded to look in completely the wrong direction for the culprit, and he keeps us blind-sided until the last few pages of the book.
The only blot on the landscape for me was a literal one: the powerful and noisy waterfall, Coopers Force, which is central to events in the story, seemed out of place in the gentle hills and meandering streams of Oxfordshire. I could picture the feature in The Lakes, Scotland, Snowdonia, or the Pennines, but such an elemental force of nature didn’t seem to belong in the golden Cotswolds. That aside, I found Purged to be exciting, convincing and well written. Best of all, it has that one essential feature of all good novels – the reader actually cares what happens to the main actors in the drama.
Purged is published by Alison & Busby, and will be available on 16th February. You can pre-order a copy here.