Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: Gallows Hill-- a Salem mystery by Rory O'Brien

Review: Gallows Hill
by Rory O'Brien

review by Michelle Souliere

When I picked up Gallows Hill, a murder mystery that takes place in the nearby and small-but-infamous town of Salem, Massachusetts, I wasn't sure what I would find within. It turns out that the book is an excellent, fast-paced police procedural mystery, as opposed to the New England cozy one might first expect from the location.

This is not to say that the location is not at the heart of this story. While it remains in the background, it is the constant, as it must be for the people who live their everyday lives there. It is this familiarity with the town that draws us in. It is a familiarity that cannot be faked, it must be given, and author Rory O'Brien gifts us with it gracefully and without us even realizing it.

That is because our attention is on the murder that has been committed, and a murder in Salem plays on a centuries-old history that lends itself to an innate alteration of context and meaning. The most innocent turn of phrase cannot be turned on one's tongue without exposing buried layers of hatred and madness from the Puritan witch hunts that went before.

While on the surface the murderer appears to play with Salem's historic triggers by placing the corpse on historic Gallows Hill, and scrawling pentagrams on the victim's palms, underneath this facetious drama lies a playing-out of ancient Salem family threads in a story all too modern, all too tied to the past.

O'Brien reels the reader in right from the start. There is no fluff in this story, no lingering too long on teashop scenes or lurid witchy ritual. The characters are each their own selves, clearly painted without the feel of cliché. Through them, the reader’s eye is turned to Salem's bare everyday heart, glimpsed clearly as each twist of the story plays out against the trapping of the town’s ever-present tourist kitsch. This is all done quite adeptly by O'Brien without any obtrusiveness. By the end of the book, the reader feels like they know Salem and its history, without quite knowing how they were told about it.

But – does the reader know who the murderer is?

Fans of "In the Woods" by Tana French and those who relish the wry and dry wit embedded in Jan Willem van de Wetering's Amsterdam mysteries will be as happy with this tale as I found myself to be.

P.S. BTW, this review was incredibly hard to write because I didn't want to give anything away about the story! So I had to focus on other elements of the writing instead. GO AND READ!!!