Book Review: Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson

Strangers at the Gate by Catriona McPherson is a twisty, fascinating mystery that asks the question: Who do you turn to when everyone’s a stranger and you’ve stopped believing your own eyes?

Finn and Paddy Lamb know they’ve hit the jackpot when they each—he a lawyer, she a deacon—get plumb job offers in the prosperous Scottish village of Simmerton. And the dream jobs aren’t all they’re getting: Paddy’s new boss, Lovatt Dudgeon, also offers them his gatehouse for a pittance of rent.

Looking back, it’s tempting to say I knew from the start, as soon as Paddy said the word for the first time. I can nearly convince myself I shivered at the sound of it. Simmerton.

 

But I’d be lying. Truth is, there was a while back then when everything seemed fine. Or even better than fine. Everything seemed golden.

But no sooner have they moved in before Finn starts to doubt their outrageous fortune. Simmerton is a place of constant rain and little sunlight, where the woods and stony cuts and silence loom like claustrophobic sentinels. The gatehouse is a cold and dreary place, and Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon’s house has an ill-omened name: Widdershins.

[The gate lodge] was squat and squint, with one bulbous bay window, like a toad’s eye, lumpy harling the colour of mud. Cottages, I reckoned, should be whitewashed with thatched roofs and you should live in them for a week, then go home. Still, I’d agreed to a year of this, so I tried to find a bright side…

 

One year, I told myself. I knew I could do a year. It wouldn’t be the first time. I would get used to the quiet. And the trees. I would stop seeing them out of the corner of my eye and thinking someone was there. If only they looked a bit less like a silent army of strangers standing dead still and watching me. Or if only the ones at the edge didn’t wave as the wind stirred them, looking as if they were shuffling their feet, just about to speak. If only there weren’t faces etched into the swirl of the bark, knot-hole mouths wide open and black eyes weeping resin tears.

Unfortunately, Finn’s malevolent first impressions prove prescient. Before they can meet anyone in town but the Dudgeons, mere minutes after a cheerful dinner with the elderly couple, the Lambs discover their bloody bodies. Panicking, spilling secrets to one another that have been hidden the whole year of their marriage, Finn and Paddy decide to not call the cops, confident someone else will find the bodies—the result of an apparent murder/suicide—the next day.

But then, a strange email is sent out by the dead man, and it quickly becomes apparent that this was murder. Someone is covering their tracks and buying time to disappear.

With the tension and fear growing, threatening the Lamb’s marriage and once-perfect lives, Finn encounters strange neighbors: the standoffish Mr. Sloan, who aggressively keeps everyone away from his shut-in wife; and the mysterious Shannon, a woman with albinism who sells UV treatments to those suffering from SAD and who has spent half her life searching for her twin brother.

As Finn and Paddy dig into the lives of Lovatt and Tuft Dudgeon, to all appearances a devoted couple beloved for their charity work finding homes for sickly orphans, shocking and horrific things start to surface—things that may prove far more personal than Finn ever could have dreamed.

Strangers at the Gate literally drips with Gothic, oppressive atmosphere as McPherson layers one ominous moment onto the next. Finn’s dreams are that mixture of mundane and insane that the worst nightmares have, so visceral they filter into your own dreams. The people of Simmerton are strange and secretive, unsettling and untrustworthy. Then, there’s the landscape itself:

There were so many different kinds of cold in Simmerton. There was the middle-of-the-night bone-chilling cold, when Paddy’s muttering disturbed me and getting up for a pee was such a torture, getting back into bed so luxurious. Then there was the crisp morning chill that felt as refreshing as splashing your face. This soaking, seeping cold was something else. It was airless and lifeless, making me fight for each breath, as though I was gulping something heavier than oxygen down into me and pushing it out again. And all the smells of the forest seemed to grow plump on this dead seeping cold: the wet earth; the sharp stink of pine; the bad-breath belch of everything slowly breaking down under there in the dark of the trees. My stomach rolled. Mushrooms, Shannon had said. Bags of rotting leaves, Mr. Sloan had said. Don’t ask, Paddy had said. Don’t make me tell you.

Lord Almighty, this is a wild ride of a story. I can say with assurance that you’ll never see the end coming. Just when you think you’ve seen or heard the craziest thing, McPherson surpasses herself. She’s perhaps best known for her historical, award-winning Dandy Gilver series, but in my opinion, this is her finest work yet. This contemporary-set thriller has a unique vibrancy to its prose and a powerful voice in narrator Finn Lamb. It’s certainly one of the strongest novels—on every level, from plotting, characters, and atmosphere to dialogue and construction—I’ve read this year.

And this is the perfect time to dive into this chilly, creepy mystery. Be sure to wrap up tight with a blanket and have a steaming cup at hand to combat the cold of Simmerton before you begin—it’s always more fun when you can savor the shivers in secure comfort.

Take a visual tour through Strangers at the Gate with GIFnotes!

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