21 September 2016

The Family Plot by Cherie Priest

Image from www.goodreads.com
The Family Plot
Cherie Priest
Macmillan, 20 September 2016*
e-book, HB (336pp)
Source: e-copy kindly provided by publisher via NetGalley

*According to NetGalley, though Amazon has 13 August

This was the first book I'd read by Cherie Priest. (My next book was the first one I've read by Christopher Priest. I'm also married to a priest - something going on here...)

I had, somehow, associated (Cherie) Priest with steampunk, and while I'm not averse to that, I'm not a massive fan: perhaps that's why I just never quite picked anything of hers up.

Big mistake. BIG mistake. Reading this - and then looking at what else Priest has actually written - shows she has a much wider range and this book in particular is as far from cogwheels, airships and brass goggles as you can imagine. Instead, it's a lush helping of gothic, set in a decaying mansion in Tennessee, from which Dahlia Dutton and her salvage crew are tasked with stripping anything saleable.

Dahlia is a tough cookie, divorced and working for her dad, Chuck Dutton of Music City Salvage, in a tough trade. The company's in debt and needs some luck - so when mysterious Augusta Winthrop comes into the office offering a tempting job, Chuck can't really say no... so far so noir, perhaps. However that impression rapidly fades as Dahlia and the team get to grips with the old Winthrop place.

They're an experienced gang, not unaccustomed to spooky stories about the places they tear down (I smiled at the implication that any building so ancient as to be built in 1890 MUST have ghosts), and used to rough conditions. However something about the Winthrop place - they have to sleep there, Music City has no money to spare for a hotel - preys on everyone's mind.

Priest expertly builds tension, with things glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, doors that won't open - and then do, with nobody near - footprints in the dust, and a slowly emerging mystery to bring it all together. Very soon, you begin to feel that the team may be in real danger. Yet it's all juxtaposed with practical detail about the job of a salvage firm - the value of American chestnut, the significance of Philips screws, what you tear out first, when to cut the power from the house. I found this fascinating in itself. Brought together, the two themes go very well: Dahlia & co can't just up and go when things get scary because they need that job. The firm needs the job. Yet their very activity threatens to make things worse - what ghost wants its home dismantling? - and requires them to poke around in those very corners and long hidden rooms which you'd normally avoid.

So much so that I'm amazed nobody set a horror story round the activities of a salvage team before. It's a much more hands on approach to the supernatural than a Jamesian scholar poring late over his manuscripts and, somehow, the matter of fact nature of the team - all jokes about Scooby Doo and about who's had the last of the whiskey - only accentuates the horror when it breaks loose.

The characters, too, are well drawn, especially Dahlia with her post-divorce issues and love of old houses (she'd save them all if she could) and her cousin Bobby with whom she bickers endlessly (it's not said, but is implied, that he has issues working for a woman). While the focus is on Dahlia, what happens in the house happens to the team, not only to her, and I enjoyed that: much more interesting than the lone hero(ine); you get to see the different response of the different types and there is an element of pulling together as well.

All that, and a sad and touching story beneath it all as well.

In all I fund this a refreshing take on an old staple ('don't go in the spooky old house') and would like it to be the first of a series, although I'm not sure whether or not that's intended (tell me what you think when you've read to the end).

With Hallowe'en coming, this would be a nice book to give the horror fiend in your life. Though perhaps not if their job is architectural salvage...

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