It is, I think, good to expand your horizons on a regular basis. That applies in all aspects of life, but especially (in my opinion at least) with reading and writing. It’s all too easy to box ourselves in to what is comfortable, what we know we like, and before we know it we end up stagnated in — to use a rather clichéd example — Tolkeinesque high fantasy.
Path of Needles then, being a crime novel, is a bit of a departure from previous form and favour for both myself, as the reader, and Alison Littlewood.
I read, and rather enjoyed, her debut novel A Cold Season over a year ago. It was a horror novel both easily accessible and eschewing the easier monster-based paths of horror for a creeping and lingering chill. But Path of Needles is cut from a different mould, so even as I opened the cover I knew that I would have to put my preconceptions aside to see what waited within
Path of Needles utilises that classic cornerstone of mystery crime fiction, the themed serial killer. To the best of my knowledge, this doesn’t tend to happen in the real world, but since “random homicidal nutter kills for no obvious reason” doesn’t lend itself naturally to exciting fiction. Here the theme is fairytales.
There seems to be something of a trend towards fairy tales lately. It was clear with the spate of Snow White films last year, but now it seems to be getting a major hat tip from the fiction world — Sarah Pinborough’s Poison comes to mind. I’m not completely sold, but even I have to admit that it makes a welcome change from brooding teenaged vampires.
Anyway, the novel centres around a series of murders in West Yorkshire, where the bodies have been staged to resemble fairy tale dioramas. Fresh-faced policewoman Cate Corbin and folklore teacher Alice Hyland are brought together in the effort to decipher the killer’s messages and motives and bring the murder spree to an end.
The power of Littlewood’s writing in this novel clearly stems from her horror background. She weaves the fairy tales right into the fabric of the story. There’s no tipping of hands, no showing of cards, and it remains a possibility that the plot could take a sharp turn off the path, and the supernatural explanations hinted at — and scorned by the characters — could turn out to be the reality. That blurring of this line between natural and supernatural is what gives Path of Needles its edge, and takes it beyond the usual crime fare.
And a lot of work has gone into it. No Disney princesses grace these pages, Littlewood has done her research into the histories of fairytales. The variations she brings out — older and necessarily more brutal than modern interpretations — are different, interesting and in a number of places surprised me with content and ideas which I hadn’t encountered elsewhere. Throughout, there is a pervading sense that a lot of work has gone into this novel.
However — and there always, it seems, has to be a however — it is still crime fiction, and I still had some of the issues with it that I tend to with that genre. It’s all so…by the numbers. A whistle-stop reveal of evidence, clue by clue in exacting order, which though undoubtedly superior to your average Midsommer Murders episode still has the dread touch of formula on it. The backstory of the killer, for example, felt like a time-worn simplification lifted from the pages of too many other novels within the genre. It was tailored to fit this story, granted, but I was left wanting something more.
Littlewood is a very competent writer. Her prose rolls of the page with a light and easy-to-read touch — I read most of it in the sun on holiday — and she has a gift for creative story-telling. By the final act, I was hoping for a sea-change in the story’s direction comparable to A Cold Season to really knock my socks off. So whilst the novel was a perfectly good crime novel — better than average, I would even chance — I was ultimately left feeling a little unfulfilled.