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Review: The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton ~ Katherine Hayton


318 pages, paperback £11.99
282 pages, Kindle £3.19

My copy of this book was kindly sent to me by the author, Katherine Hayton, in return for an honest review.

The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton is the second book I read by indie author Katherine Hayton. The first one was Skeletal, which is described as a ‘supernatural thriller’, and relates the story of the murder of a teenage girl who is bullied at school and slowly descends into madness. I think I gave Katherine 3 stars for Skeletal, inasmuch as I’d love to have seen the protagonist’s mental illness differently explored. The title however stayed in my mind, as did Katherine’s name as an author of consistent promise. So much so that, when Katherine asked for readers for her new novel, I did not hesitate. I knew it would be a crime thriller, and I knew Katherine would not disappoint my expectations. And she didn’t.

Hayton’s new book, The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton, tells exactly the story of its title. There is a teenage girl, Magdalene Lynton, who lives in a religious commune with rather strict rules. Like all teenagers I have ever known, this girl rebels. And then she gets killed.

Forty years on, a man on the verge of death walks into a police station, identifies himself and confesses to the murder of Magdalene Lynton. He is interviewed by Ngaire Blakes, a policewoman who had been through a stabbing incident and who now carries her own shadows and fears and anxieties, and her partner and friend Debra Weedon.

Instinct tells Ngaire there is something to the man’s story, and she digs up the cold case file. And that is when she discovers that the man’s confession of the crime does not fit the evidence collected forty years previously.

So how did Magdalene die? Was she strangled during rape and her body dumped in the local river, like Paul Worthington confessed to? Did she drown in the sludge pool at the commune’s farm, like the coroner’s report stated? Why was she drenched and bloodied when she came to Worthington’s barn? Was she really pregnant? And who by? Was it by this boyfriend that keeps being mentioned, or is the truth too sinister to contemplate? Did he really kill her, as he has been blaming himself his whole life for doing? And what was her real name, Magdalene or Claire, as she insisted people called her? Who is this boy that keeps popping up as Magdalene’s only friend at the commune, and her sidecar lift to school? Why does everyone who lived at the commune when Magdalene died seem to remember events in exactly the same way? And why do they seem to be concealing more than what they are revealing?

Thread by thread, and with the help of Ngaire’s school friend Finlay Ewan, a journalist who had researched the death through his interest in 1970s religious cults, Ngaire and Deb put together a full picture of a girl at odds with her family and environment, creative and talented and full of life, who left a vivid, loving, admiring memory in the people who knew her.

And thread by thread Ngaire, at the risk of her own life as she is savagely beaten and thrown into the sludge pool to die, reconstitutes the last days of the girl’s life, and the events that led to her death. In the process, Ngaire is confronted with the fears that had haunted her since her stabbing, and her own insecurities as a policewoman.

The Three Deaths of Magdalene Lynton is a lovely book, a light psychological thriller that is captivating and entertaining throughout. It is a story where nothing is what it seems to be, and where we’re confronted with the gap between what people are, what they think of themselves, and what they are seen to be. There’s a cold blood, disturbed killer called Worthington when there’s nothing worthy about him, and who appears to be an honourable man finally doing the right thing before death takes him; a ‘cop’ who seems to be cowardly and dishonourable but who in the end is just another damaged soul, going through life the best she can and doing a good job of it. And there’s a version of events and people that appears to be carefully hewn in order to mislead Ngaire’s investigation — or was it just the disturbed near deathbed rant of a man no longer in full possession of his mind?

And what exactly is the relationship between Ngaire and Finlay?

Katherine leaves us plenty of threads for us to speculate on what can be going on, and to try and reconstitute our own chain of events. Some are little clues to what is really happening, as for instance when Isaiah tells Ngaire and Deb that ‘[Magdalene] belonged to [Abe]’. Some are just misdirections, in this hall of mirrors of a crime story. She also has quite a turn with words, with  absolute genius moments like the one regarding eye teeth and lawyers.

Throughout, we’re permanently told not to take anything at face value. It’s just that we’re not listening: we’re too busy following the clues and speculating, and we take things at face value at our own peril, just like Ngaire. It is so much so that when the end comes, it comes with something so unexpected that we’re thrown back, almost as if caught off our feet; and we hang in there, in the story and outside it, thinking how it is at the same time so absolutely terrible, and such a loving and the most natural thing to happen.

I can think of many ways in which the characters and the plot could have been differently carved and exploited, making this a grittier, darker thriller. But then it would be a completely different kettle of fish, and it would not be Katherine Hayton, this distinctiveness of her narrative voice and subtlety lost.

And let’s just put it this way: I don’t think I will ever see eye teeth quite in the same light. Ever. Again.

Verdict: recommended
Rating: ♥♥♥♥♥
Shelf: indie authors worth a read

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