Path Of Needles

by Alison Littlewood

Reviewed by Adam Armstrong

As we mentioned in a previous review, fairy tales seem to be all the rage these days. The popular thing to do is a “gritty re-imaging” though many were quite dark to begin with. But a new twist would be seeing how people would react to the things carried out in fairy tales in present day. In the years of yore, people might have been okay with abandoning your children when they get too expensive or killing someone who was prettier than you, but nowadays that kind of thing is frowned on.

A girl is found murdered and dumped in the woods. The police chuck the murder up to a crime of passion but one newly trained officer, Cate Corbin, notices something odd about the positioning of the body. It is staged to look like Snow White: her hair dyed black, her lips were painted as red as blood, and even her skin has been bleached to a paler shade. At first her colleagues dismiss or laugh at Cate, until the next body shows up, this one in a red cape with a basket of food by her side. Littlewood wastes no time getting us into the mystery and introducing a cast of characters, with more than a few of them who could have blood on their hands. She tackles the more familiar fairy tales that would be easily recognizable to the reader before tossing in a few odder ones.

Cate finds a local professor, Alice Hyland, who is an expert in fairy tales. Though the victims don't fit with the most recent or popular version of the fairy tales, Alice is able to point out some older variants that the killer is using. Alice helps the police advance their case but she starts to add in dimensions the police never thought of. They begin to see her less as an aide in their investigations and more of a suspect. The characters are fleshed out well enough for the reader to see that the author isn't using literary misdirection to pull a suspect out of a hat.

Cate starts to see the error in her ways by bringing Alice in on the case but doesn't notice that she is beginning to obsess over the killings. Alice believes that she can find some sort of key that will unlock everything and stumbles onto something that goes back decades. All the wrong suspects are being rounded up as the killer begins working on the final fairy tale to end it all.

I read and reviewed Alison Littlewood's previous book, A Cold Season (Jo Fletcher, 2013), a while back and I really didn't care for it. It suffered from tons of problems. Path Of Needles is the opposite. Where Littlewood's previous novel suffered from over description and a slow, plodding pace, her new novel hums right along with every passage integral to the plot. A Cold Season was riddled with plot holes while Path Of Needles has everything tied up in a nice neat little package at the end. Sure there are a few rough spots here and there but it shows a dramatic improvement in ability from one novel to the next.

The fairy tale variants were fascinating; for some reason these old tales still resonate with many of us. Reading the book you could see and feel the research that went into it. The fairy tale angle also put a new twist on the police procedural part of the novel that is fairly well trodden (I don't think there is a tremendous difference in the various police procedurals out there but that is their attraction). The brutality of some of the original stories doesn't really touch us until we take them out of the fantasy worlds of magic and look at them in the cold hard light of reality.

The book is replete with plenty of unsavory characters that could possibly be our killer. While there were a lot of ways Littlewood could have went with this, the reveal of the killer doesn't really strike you as false or as a "got ya" moment. Everything fits and the back-story as to why is more interesting than the who. The implied magical elements are similar. Littlewood never comes out and states that these things are actually happening, instead letting the reader decide what is real and what isn't.

If you are a fan of police procedurals, have an interest in fairy tales, or just want to read a good thriller go ahead and pick this up. If you are looking for more supernatural elements you won't find them here. However, you will find a finely written novel about how we deal with fantasy as it is brought into reality.