‘Song of the Damned’ is the latest psychological, supernatural historical thriller from the pen of Saran Rayne or perhaps she writes with a quill and ink, in an attic under owl-light- as she so convincingly recreates the settings and voices of different eras in her stories. This is the third novel starring music researcher Phineas Fox (isn’t that a fabulous name?) and as is often the case with Rayne’s plots, music, ancient, lost and cryptic, is an important thread which serves as a lasso holding together the past/present day narratives. For as always, the present day setting (in this case, a girls’ school, Cresacre Abbey) is the backdrop for past crimes committed, whose shadowy tentacles reach out to entrap the living.
Rayne’s plots remind me of a set of Russian Dolls, so detailed in their execution, and each one when removed, revealing another precise tinier figure inside. You really have to keep up with the plot clues, the differing voices (often heard in diaries or letters) and the historical narrative switching. Take your readerly eye off the ball and you lose the thread; you’ve got to be a Theseus finding his way out of the labyrinth. Minotaurs abound in Rayne’s novels.
I’m a huge fan of her thrillers, and have read them all, see Sarah’s blog http://www.sarahrayne.co.uk/ for a full list and the different pen names she has written under.
Sarah is adept at ratcheting up the tension, and giving hints that all is not well – you start in the present and travel back to the C18th to when the school was a nunnery and via diary entries to France, just prior to the butchery of the French Revolution (which is given a larger role later on) in a touching scene at the Guillotine itself.
Rayne is expert at capturing the nuances of the different historical periods, through language, clothing, food, and in this novel, the use of music.
I suspect she is a whizz at research- for all her novels are rich in such details; much of the plot in ‘Song of the Damned’ revolves around the ancient practice of ‘immurement’ (literally:- walliing-in alive) and Phineas begins to discover that this grisly ritual has not died out.
The scenes set in Infanger Cottage, owned by a remnant of the Tulliver family, Olivia (a brilliant depiction by Rayne of an odd, isolated and ultimately tragic individual), are for me, the most disturbing, sinister and menacing of the whole novel. The denouement with Phin’s girlfriend, Arabella Tallis and Olivia, is a model in how to writing creeping terror brilliantly. You just want to shout, ‘Watch out, don’t go down the cellar stairs!’
There is a hefty amount of plot, minor and major, going on in this novel, with revelations scattered liberally along the way; literally never a quiet moment. Who is Ginevra? Where is the missing opera? Where and why and how did the nuns vanish to in the 1790’s? Why won’t Olivia sell Infanger cottage? The questions continue.
To find out the answers and the full solution to this tricky, elaborate and clever puzzle-box of a novel- well I would strongly advise buying the book and sitting down for a weekend and only come up for a coffee.
Thank you to netgalley and publisher Severn House for the pdf of the book for the purposes of reviewing it.