Book Review: The Puppet Show by M.W. Craven


Author: M.W. Craven

Publisher: Constable

Release Date: June 2018

At the outset of The Puppet Show, a serial killer – subsequently dubbed the Immolation Man – is burning people alive in the Lake District’s prehistoric stone circles. His methodology may be grisly, but his approach is meticulous and he leaves no clues for the police to pick over. However, when the name of disgraced detective Washington Poe is found carved into the charred remains of the third victim, the curmudgeonly Cumbrian cop is brought back from suspension and thrust into the heart of an investigation he wants no part of. Partnered with Tilly Bradshaw, a talented but socially awkward civilian analyst, Poe sets out to uncover the culprit – and work out his own twisted link to the killer.

As regular visitors to this blog will know, I’m not a frequent reader of police procedurals, as they tend to leave me cold. I’m happy to report that The Puppet Show completely upended my expectations! The improbably named Washington Poe is an enjoyably damaged protagonist and someone who you immediately find yourself rooting for. (As has been pointed out elsewhere, Poe is arguably the closest a British crime writer has come to conjuring up a homegrown Harry Bosch to date.) Further, the protective arm he quickly extends around Tilly – who has an autism spectrum disorder (no labels are ever applied) – marks the start of an unlikely, but formidable, partnership.

Crammed full of astute observations and piercing background details, The Puppet Show is a strong piece of writing that boasts solid characterisation throughout. As Poe’s investigation unfolds, Craven takes us to some unapologetically dark places. The gloomy rural setting combined with an increasingly queasy mystery give the book a genuinely sinister charge. Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a vicious twist that unlocks the horrible central mystery, and I never saw it coming!

The Puppet Show is a cracking thriller, and I’m keen to see whether the subsequent books (Black Summer/The Curator/Dead Ground/The Botanist) are able to maintain the gripping, disturbing heights achieved in this book. Impressive stuff.

Review by Tom Leins