DRUG addict Jess Moulson wakes in hospital with no memory and a face scarred from reconstructive surgery to learn she is under arrest for the murder of a child, Alex Beech, who died in a fire at her apartment — a fire she supposedly started in a heroin-induced rage against her abusive boyfriend.
The strong opening of MR Carey’s novel, Fellside, hooks the reader immediately, suggesting he is a writer used to constructing tales.
Known to fans of graphic novels for his work on The Fantastic Four and The X-Men, his debut novel, The Girl with all the Gifts, became a word-of-mouth bestseller, meaning his second was much anticipated.
But with Fellside he moves away from the world of superheroes to deliver a prison story with a mystery at its heart, and a touch of the supernatural.
Moulson’s memory returns in fits and starts and, racked with nightmares, she comes to believe in her own culpability, providing no resistance to the evidence presented against her.
The result is a guilty verdict and incarceration at Fellside prison, which, given the ghostly turn the narrative takes, is suitably — if unoriginally — located ‘on the moors’.
As Moulson refuses to eat, with the goal of starving herself to death, she begins to receive visits from Alex’s spirit, who, in dream-like sequences takes her on visits to a halfway house between life and death where she can see into the minds of her fellow prisoners.
In this heightened world of psychic illusion, Alex tells her she is innocent of causing his death and that he wants his true killer found.
At this point, the influence of the early work of Stephen King and Dean Koontz looms large in Carey’s writing, but without King’s sure touch when it comes to creating characters.
The staff and inmates of Fellside are as thin as cardboard: the religion-obsessed governor, the corrupt warder, the cellmate with a kind heart — all remain firmly on the page and fail to come alive.
In a narrative where the author shifts viewpoint too often, only Harriet Grace — the prisoner who runs Fellside as her personal fiefdom — is a fully-rounded individual.
Moulson abandons her suicide attempt and launches an appeal, the aim being to trawl through the paperwork in an attempt to find something that was missed first time around, and perhaps reveal Alex’s killer, despite the fact that no evidence appears to exist of anyone else being involved in his death.
This straightforward mystery keeps the plot moving forward at a steady pace, as does Fellside’s thriving drug-smuggling business which edges ever closer to Jess Moulson and threatens to engulf her in its corrupt world.
What slows the narrative down, however, are the author’s diversions into the dreamworld, as Jess and Alex take meandering and unnecessarily-long journeys into the afterlife.
The threat of physical violence from Grace and her thugs is ever-present and sometimes explodes to the surface with beatings.
Because of Moulson’s repeated trips to the appeal court, Grace decides to use her as a drugs mule — a move that puts her quest to discover the truth in danger.
Something neither Jess nor the ghost of Alex Beech can allow.
The plot twist comes about three quarters of the way through, and it’s to the author’s credit that readers don’t see it coming, despite the fact that a skim back through earlier chapters shows it was signalled from the start.
Fellside comes in at a hefty 500 pages, and despite falling victim to the author’s tendency for repetition, does enough to hold the attention of thriller fans and provide a satisfying conclusion.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved