Michael J. Malone

(Orenda, £9.99)


Over the past few years, it’s been gratifying to watch Michael J. Malone’s progress, his early hard-boiled crime novels followed by an increasingly diverse range of psychological thrillers exploring new territory each time. The Murmurs finds him once again trying something different, and it has the potential to be his biggest smash yet, an assured paranormal thriller in which the paranormal isn’t even the scariest part.


Annie Jackson is cursed. She can spot people who will soon die, seeing their faces morph into a skull-like appearance in terrifying visions accompanied by otherworldly murmuring voices.  It’s a burden that’s been passed down her female line, originating during the Highland Clearances, when an evicted tenant cursed the landowning family. Not all of the female members of her line have acquired it, but for those who have it’s brought misery and madness.


When Annie takes a job at an old folks’ home and, on her first day, has a chilling vision of one of the elderly residents collapsing and dying after a stroke, she can’t face going back there again. It’s the beginning of a journey of discovery for her, as, with twin brother Lewis’s help, she sets out to probe her past and understand the impact that this morbid gift of foresight has had on her family.


Her quest is complicated further by the fact that her childhood is sealed off from her by amnesia. Lewis and the kindly couple who took her in when her father committed suicide have tried to fill her in on what she can’t remember, but she can’t remember anything before the car accident that killed her mother and nearly killed her.


All roads lead to the village where she and Lewis spent their childhoods, a place known for its quaint, historical church, overseen by the sinister Pastor Mosley, to whom their mother, Eleanor, was devoted. It’s a part of the country where women were put to death as witches, a legacy that has proved hard to shake off. Even centuries later, Pastor Mosley is vigilant against threats of witchcraft and demonic possession.


Slowly collapsing under the weight of her curse and her repressed memories, the complex, edgy Annie is a stark contrast to her brother’s sunnier nature, but she’s a strong lead, who still clings on to a glimmer of hope that she might find love in the midst of it all.


Although she has Lewis to help jog her memory, the past is enshrouded in mystery and secrecy. Annie can still feel, on a gut level, her mother’s coldness towards her, and she wishes she could understand it and unravel the truth behind the family split that caused Eleanor to pack up their belongings and follow the pastor to this rural parish. She’s mystified by the appearance of an aunt she never knew she had, and chilled to the bone by the time that, as a teenager, she predicted the death of a local girl who was never seen again.


The TV rights may already have been sold, for all I know. If not, they surely soon will be, as this, of all Malone’s books so far, stands out as the one that would lend itself best to at atmospheric small-screen adaptation. With a witchy 18th Century prologue, dual timelines, family secrets, murder, a cultish clergyman, a dose of the supernatural and a story that stretches from the heart of the city to the most secret Highland hideaway, it’s a tale that keeps our interest piqued throughout, with the tension and foreboding reaching fever pitch as the end approaches.