Can you trust the sister?

For the Washington Post
Thursday, July 21, 2016

Any regular reader of suspense fiction knows that when a passage like this one appears at the beginning of a novel, things are going to go downhill fast: “Rachel isn’t at the station. This isn’t unusual. Her shifts at the hospital often run late.”

Nothing possibly could be amiss, right? Right.

Our narrator is a young woman named Nora who has taken the train from London to spend the weekend with her sister Rachel, a nurse practitioner who lives in a country village. Or, I should say, lived in a country village.

When Nora walks from the village station to Rachel’s house, she’s greeted inside by a horrific sight: Nora’s trained guard dog, a German shepherd, is hanging from its leash at the top of the stairs. Rachel herself has been stabbed to death. Nora calls an ambulance and says calmly, if illogically: “I wait for Rachel to appear in the doorway. . . . I am listening for the soft pad of her footsteps when I hear the sirens. She has to come downstairs before the ambulance arrives. It will be finished when someone else sees her.”

These are but the very first moments of Under the Harrow, an exquisitely taut and intense debut thriller by Flynn Berry. That opening grabs a reader’s attention, but Nora’s voice is what keeps it.

Traumatized, Nora speaks in hollowed-out tones and clipped present-tense sentences throughout this (refreshingly) short thriller. She’s also a wee bit unreliable as a narrator. Sometimes Nora simply seems slow to share information; at other times, it appears there may be more sinister reasons for her omissions.

In the hours after that gruesome discovery at her sister’s house, Nora moves into the village’s only hotel. She’s determined to do whatever she can to help the local police in the investigation. Nora informs detectives that many years ago Rachel was the victim of a violent assault and that her attacker was never found. Could he have tracked Rachel down?

More questions arise when a stunned Nora discovers packed suitcases in her sister’s car and learns that she was planning to move to an even more isolated village on the coast in Cornwall. Who was Rachel running from, and why didn’t she tell Nora of her plans? And then there’s the dog. The murderer must have been someone the guard dog knew and trusted. A friend or, perhaps, maybe, even a sister?

The police, of course, also wonder about Nora’s trustworthiness, especially as her behavior becomes more unhinged. Convinced that a neighbor was watching her sister, Nora begins confronting him in public. Trying to delve deeply into Rachel’s life to find clues to her killer’s identity, Nora rapidly becomes something of a double for her sister.

Take this scene on the night before Rachel’s funeral where, not only Nora, but also her hotel room, becomes a grotesque mirror image of the novel’s opening scene. A distraught Nora tells us:

“I can’t sleep. The dread grows worse with every hour and warps the next day into something I won’t survive without rest. I don’t have sleeping pills or tranquilizers, but I do have the bottle of red wine I brought from London for Rachel. There isn’t a corkscrew in the room. . . . There is a screwdriver on top of the bathroom cabinet. . . . I dig the screwdriver into the cork, pushing it down the neck of the bottle. There is a crash as the cork breaks the seal and wine erupts. Red liquid gushes onto my stomach and drips down my chest. . . . The wine tracks down my arms along my veins. The wet plasters my shirt to my stomach. There are red spatters on the walls, and already the room smells rancid.”

There’s a subtle strain of Daphne Du Maurier’s classic, Rebecca, in Under the Harrow. Certainly, the eerie Cornwall scenes here contribute to the association, as does Nora’s haunted first-person narration. In both works – if a reader is attentive enough – the truth can be glimpsed in the shadows, lurking within the bare facts of what our narrator discloses.

But enough with comparisons: Under the Harrow is such a superbly crafted psychological thriller, it deserves to be celebrated for its own singular excellence.