The Night Visitor - Lucy Atkins
The Night Visitor - Lucy Atkins ***
Who would have thought that the publishing industry could potentially be a hotbed of intrigue? And even more unlikely in the case of the publication of a popular history book written by a celebrity historian and TV presenter? In the case of The Night Visitor you might expect that the suspense revolves around the uncovering of an old diary that confesses to a Victorian murder at a stately manor, but no, this is just the starting point of Lucy Atkins' thriller. The real trouble for TV historian Olivia Sweetman would appear to be around her choice of research assistant.
No, it doesn't sound like a promising premise for a suspense thriller, and indeed for the larger part of The Night Visitors there's nothing much of a 'crime' or 'thriller' element to go on other that people behaving a little bit odd. There's certainly something not right about Vivian Tester, and yet, it's Vivian's discovery of the diary of Lady Annabel Burley in a Sussex manor that is an invaluable find for a historian like Olivia who is beginning to build up a name for herself in the booming field of popular history TV programming.
Vivian, a retired scientist specialising in the study of beetles, now works as a housekeeper for the current elderly Lady Burley. On a chance visit to the Ileford museum, Olivia convinces Vivian that the diary, with Lady Annabel's fascinating confession of the murder of her husband, could have the potential to be a blockbuster in the non-fiction charts. Although Vivian is what you might call "socially awkward", she nonetheless proves to be an invaluable research assistant gathering background information on Annabel's colourful life and family connections.
Even before the book is published however, strange things seem to be happening in Olivia Sweetman's life. Her 15 year old son is uncommunicative, there's some tension between Olivia and her husband over her writing career taking off while his seems to be declining, and his ill-advised investments have plunged the family close to financial ruin. It's also suggested - not terribly subtly - that he may well be having an affair. Things reach a breaking point while they are on holiday in France, just prior to the publication of 'Annabel', when someone cuts her daughter's beautiful long hair while she is asleep.
All is not going well in the Sweetman household, but there's nothing here that is really out of the ordinary you might think, and certainly not much of a thriller element to grab attention. Much of The Night Visitors is taken up with what seems to be fairly mundane domestic matters, but there are a few other strange things going on. Olivia is concerned that a stalker who was troubling her might have resurfaced, and the appearance of Vivian in the nearby village where they are holidaying in the south of France is very odd indeed, but there's little that can be related to any kind of specific threat or danger, and little reason you would think why anyone would want to target Olivia.
Olivia's greatest concern over the publication of the book is that she appears to have slighted Vivian by not giving her a credit in the acknowledgements, and for ignoring her suggestions for further projects. Oh, and she accidentally killed her dog. Still, these things happen and it's hardly the kind of thing you're going to need to schedule much "Worry Time" over, but Vivian is clearly behaving strangely in the weeks leading up to the publication of the book. There are hints dropped as to where this might stem from, and it's the promise of those revelations more than any specific threat, the apparent absence of any crime, victim or culprit that might provide a reason to keep reading The Night Visitor to the conclusion.
Certainly there isn't much else to keep you involved. The professional rivalry, bidding wars and personality clashes within the publishing industry are not unexpectedly rather tame, the domestic situation in Olivia's middle-class life is tediously predictable and has no bearing or relevance towards the outcome. The alternate chapters of the novel seen from Olivia's viewpoint (in the third-person) and Vivian's (in the first-person) do keep up a momentum but more often repetitively go over the same uninteresting events in unnecessary detail. Even the beetle metaphors - with their mimicking and predatory species - seems a little over-stated.
Fortunately The Night Visitor does reward in the end with a conclusion that ties up some of the mysteries, and not just the domestic ones. Without getting into the area of spoilers, Lucy Atkins does manage to resolve matters of personality well while at the same time complicating them further and really testing how you feel about the respective characters. It might take a little contrivance to get there but Atkins bravely follows through with an ending that meets those thriller expectations that you feared might never materialise, and it's actually the domestic matters that are left in a delightfully precarious and more complicated state of non-resolution.
The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins is published by Quercus.