In Dead Woman Walking, from master of suspense Sharon Bolton, the sole survivor of a hot-air balloon crash witnesses a murder as the balloon is falling.
Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton, like many fine mystery novels, has a title with a double—perhaps even triple—meaning, and two of those meanings aren't apparent until at least halfway through the book. This is one of those British mysteries where evil hides in the present and the past.
It begins with a spectacular balloon ride over Northumberland National Park. The ride takes passengers over some of the most scenic and historic areas of Scotland, including the ruins of Harcourt Estate. But modern crime soon intrudes as Jessica and Isabelle—two sisters aboard the balloon—spot a man chasing a woman to an outer area of the ruin and apparently murdering her. (Note: I was so fascinated by Bolton’s descriptions of the park, I explored the park’s official website and added it to my bucket list UK trip. However, I couldn’t find anything about Harcourt Estates, alas.)
The assault, in full view of those in the balloon’s basket, sets in motion an action sequence that occupies about a quarter of the book’s beginning. The presumed killer realizes he’s been spotted from overhead and chases after the balloon, shotgun in hand. The balloon’s riders must avoid his deadly aim—calm panic among their own—and find a safe place to land.
Unfortunately, we know from a short opening that although there are twelve people aboard the balloon, only one survives to bear witness. Handling such a large group, particularly one we know is destined to die—save for the survivor—is a feat. Bolton makes the reader feel for every single person, concentrating on their increasingly frantic and sometimes misguided efforts to control the balloon while hoping to avoid the killer following them on motorcycle:
Shock had wrapped itself around the balloon like a chill wind. The hiker in the far corner of the basket was shouting instructions that nobody could properly hear. The teenage boy, using his phone to take pictures of the dead pilot, was a mass of jumpy, nervous movement. His father, by contrast, seemed frozen in place. The mother and daughter were locked tight together as far from the dead man as they could get.
Interspersed with the external story of the survivor and her quest for justice is the story of Jessica and Isabella’s relationship, their other severed family connections, and the trauma that drove one of them to become a nun. So while the reader is swept along by the thriller and the survivor’s present-day struggle to survive, they are learning more about the emotional lives of the sisters. In a way, the survivor was a dead woman walking for years, at least emotionally. (If I’m being vague, it’s because I don’t want to spoil the mystery.)
Dead Woman Walking has many virtues, but it made some narrative choices that frustrated me as a reader. (This reaction is a personal one, and other readers may lack my bias.) First, there are short scenes of the sister’s childhood interspersed within the action of the balloon chase, and for me, they undercut the tension of that opening sequence. For instance, as the balloon’s trouble worsens, the next chapter cuts to 22 years earlier, as the sisters are at a crossroads:
“You’ll be fine, Jess. Auntie Brenda and Uncle Rob love you. They will take very good care of you. In four more years, you’ll go to university. You’ll do brilliantly and make me so proud. And then you’ll get married and you’ll have children. You’ll be happy and this sadness will be something that was with you once but passed.”
However, these flashbacks provide context both for what happens later and the emotional background of how the sisters’ family was ripped apart when they were only teenagers.
There’s also a narrative swerve by the author, meant to enhance the mystery, where something the reader has accepted as a given turns out not to be at all what it seems. I thought the book was already sufficiently engrossing and didn’t need this to add tension, but other readers might be surprised and delighted by the revelation.
Bolton’s writing certainly has a great deal going for it, as does this book. For such a tragic story, it also offers closure and a glimmer of hope at the end.
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Corrina Lawson is a writer, mom, geek and superhero, though not always all four on the same day. She is a senior editor of the GeekMom blog at Wired and the author of a superhero romance series and an alternate history series featuring Romans and Vikings in ancient North America. She has been a comic book geek all her life and often dreamed of growing up to be Lois Lane.