Mystery of the Month – The Hidden Hours

I’ve been searching for a book like The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster. It has all the elements of a cracking mystery – a dead body in the first chapter, a vulnerable protagonist you’re not sure if you can trust, a list of dubious murder suspects and my favourite possible setting for a murder mystery – London.

The Hidden Hours is the fifth psychological suspense novel from bestselling author Sara Foster. Her third novel Shallow Breath was long listed for the 2013 Davitt Award and having previously worked as an editor, Foster knows how to craft a compelling story.

Her world is beginning to unravel, pulling at the threads that bind the husk of her nine-year-old self, exposing the cruel edges of all that the years have failed to smother.”

Eleanor Brennan is a troubled woman in her early twenties with a habit of blocking traumatic events from her memory, including a horrifying scene from her childhood. Unfortunately for Eleanor, she’s just become embroiled in another shocking incident – the murder of glamorous marketing director, Arabella Lane.

Having recently moved to London from Australia, Eleanor hopes to start her life anew. She lives with her uncle, Ian and his wife, the formidable Susan, who gets her a job temping at Parker & Lane, the publishing company of which she is CEO. Eleanor is unsure of her aunt and uncle, aware of friction between the two, but develops a fondness for their daughters, Naeve and Savannah.

Desperate to fit in, Eleanor attends the Parker & Lane Christmas party. But the morning after, its employees are informed that Arabella Lane’s body has been dragged out of the Thames.

Eleanor knows she spoke to Arabella at the party. But she can’t be sure about anything that happened after Arabella slipped something into her drink.

“She squeezes her eyes shut and replays the evening again. She tries to fill in more of the night, but the harder she chases the memories, the faster they run until everything is dark and empty. The void is terrifying.”

As with all good fictional murder victims, Arabella was ‘livin’ la vida loca’. Drugs, affairs, strained relationships – lots of people had a reason for wanting Arabella dead. But could Eleanor be in some way responsible? And if she isn’t, then why does she have something of Arabella’s – something personal and important – in her handbag?

The narrative switches between two time lines – Eleanor’s childhood in Australia in 2004 and 2005, which begins just over a quarter of the way through the story, and the current timeline in London in 2016. As a child, Eleanor and her increasingly distant older brother, Aiden, are living in a shed with their parents while her enthusiastic and “relentlessly positive” father builds them a house from scratch on a perfect square of bushland.

Eleanor is haunted by these memories from her childhood, as a lonely and friendless young girl. The relationship between her father and mother is eroding, her absent brother gets mixed up with the wrong crowd and then there’s Solomon – the mysterious old widower living on the next property, who takes an interest in Eleanor’s sketching.

The reader really wants to know – what happened to Eleanor when she was a child? Who killed Arabella? But Sara Foster isn’t ready to tell us yet. Information is drip fed, chapter by chapter, dragging out the tension so the reader is filled with a sense of dread and unease, and compelled to keep turning those pages.

“Things are turning full circle, she can feel it: the ground is unsteady, as though the world is about to shift again. Something is coming. She needs to be vigilant. She needs to be ready.”

The Hidden Hours is really a story about Eleanor and the two major crises that happen in her life – one in the past and one in the present. Both timelines are written in present tense, highlighting how the events of Eleanor’s past still affect her in the present.

At times Eleanor is so vulnerable she almost becomes frustrating, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for her, particularly her awkward desperation at the Christmas party – everyone around her is talking and laughing while “she could feel herself slowly sinking away from them, invisible, despite every inch of her straining to fit in.” Every introvert who’s gone stag to a party will know how Eleanor feels in this moment.

Sara Foster builds a three dimensional world for the story by starting each chapter with short anecdotes from the point of view of other characters connected to Arabella – a doorman at the hotel where Arabella took her lovers, the chief pathologist, passers-by who saw Arabella the night she died, her drug dealer, and the paparazzi.

Eleanor’s relationships with those around her are believable, including a tentative flirtation with Parker & Lane art director Will Clayton, and with her cousins, particularly astute Naeve in whom Eleanor sees some of herself, drawing parallels between Naeve’s relationship with Ian and Eleanor’s tenuous relationship with her own father.

I’m always impressed when I’m wrong about the identity of the killer. Even as the story neared its conclusion and the list of suspects had dwindled, I was still surprised when Eleanor’s hidden hours were finally revealed.

The Hidden Hours by Sara Foster is published by Simon & Schuster.

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