Written in Blood
 Editors: Lindsay Ashford & Caroline Oakley

Honno Welsh Women's Press
  009 Paperback

"'Ooh, I love a good massage,' Bubbles cooed, leaning into the pressure. 'You’re so good at it. What is it you do for a living?'
She barely registered the pricking sensation.
'I’m a butcher,' he whispered hotly into her ear whilst simultaneously thrusting the tip of a lethally honed boning knife between the first and second vertebrae of her neck, severing the spinal cord'.

Reviewed by Sheila Cornelius

Secrets, revenge and the hand of fate are key ingredients in these fifteen tales with a twist; memorable characters and sparky language add to their appeal.

Unsurprisingly, geography plays a role in stories written by women who either live in Wales or have strong Welsh connections. Typical settings are farms and small communities. A body in a disused mine-shaft for instance, in Caroline Clark’s poignant Tailings, comes to light only after a number of years because it’s in an isolated hill farm.

The importance of conformity in small communities is evident in the way characters behave, too. The sudden appearance of a homicidal maniac in an isolated farmhouse in Delphine Richards’ The Visitor creates a frisson of suspense but comedy ensues when the owner’s first concern is a fear that the assassin will scatter soil on the carpet: "I didn’t want to give anyone the opportunity to say that Beth Price kept a dirty house".

In this story, as in in several others, the country environment influences the choice of murder weapon, more likely to be a pitchfork or a boning knife than a gun. A bullying rent collector is chopped up and fed to the pigs in Maggie Cainen’s aptly named story, Pork Pies, with its grisly description of "massive molars clamping down, shredding the pink pieces until not a scrap remained." An even more gruesome fate awaits the unfortunate victims of the butcher/murderer in Christmas Present by Hilary Bowers, in a run-down urban district.

Country reservoirs are convenient for non-accidental drowning, as in Kay Sheard’s Cherry Pie, and burials are more likely to go unnoticed in remote locations, as depicted in Anita Rowe’s The Wolf in the Attic. The tale features one of many dysfunctional families whose secrets resurface to haunt and punish perpetrators.

Female voices suit the confessional nature of many of the tales.

Retribution often takes on biblical overtones, without explicit reference to religion. In Without a Trace, by Rhia Herrad, the narrator’s memories of sexual abuse, and her fear of "slowly going empty, like a balloon that’s losing air" eases the readers understanding of the horrific revenge she takes. Bitter Harvest, by Val Douglas, shows the workings of maternal love that ignores the threat of violence in an offspring, as the mother "hardly noticed his loose-lipped drooling mouth and his odd eyes".

Poverty is an issue in a number of the stories. In Yasmin Ali’s Man and Boy children discover a gun while their mother is out at work. A lone parent struggling to support her family, she has been coerced into hiding the weapon in her home as a favour to her lover. Tension builds as brother and sister use it in their games:
"I bet you couldn’t shoot me!" she giggled, and picked up a cushion and hurled it at her brother. He loosed one hand from the gun, catching the cushion and lobbing it back at his sister.
Even the three tales set in foreign cities feature close-knit groups. Ten Little Londoners by Joy Tucker is a retrospective account of women who share a large room and who choose one of their number as a scape-goat. Again, the murder is concealed and only comes to light when the body turns up in a medical dissection room. Within a Whisker, by Beryl Roberts is a sleazy drama in which a Johannesburg conman plots his "exit-visa out of hell". He and his two hapless sidekicks meet with their nemesis from an unexpected source. New York-based China Doll by Kate Kinnersley is a pastiche of the hardboiled detective genre, featuring a femme fatale who is "the kinda babe you always wish would come into your life on a cold, wet, lonely night."

Humour frequently adds piquancy to the language. The Sound of Crying by H D Lewis has a creepy receptionist-narrator who with a sharply satirical turn of phrase to describe her employer, a doctor, who "passed his medical degree with flying halitosis, specialising in general practice and specific groping."

The influence of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood is felt most keenly, in Killing the Village Cat by Jan Baker. This small-town black comedy features a vengeful widower plagued by predatory females, including one who looks "like an overstuffed sofa" and makes fruitcake "the consistency of which would have been the envy of council workers repairing the pot-holes in the lanes".

All the tales feature a satisfying twist, some more unexpected than others. The Emerald Earring by Sue Anderson, for instance, the only story without a death, features a young woman who neatly turns the tables on idle boyfriend. It’s unusual in having an upper-class character, the comically portrayed Mrs Pomeroy ("I’m an aristocrat by nature") and an ear-ring wearing lapdog.

In summary, the sheer variety and craft of these stories makes for a very satisfying read while reminding us of the drama underlying apparently innocent lives.

Sheila Cornelius writes across several genres : film, travel, crime and literary fiction. She is particularly interested in the short story form.

Sheila's other Short Reviews: The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2008

Anne Enright "Taking Pictures"

Courttia Newland "Music for the Off-Key"

Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-shorts

Liz Niven and Brian Whittingham (eds)  "Bucket of Frogs"

ZoŽ S. Roy "Butterfly Tears"
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Editors: Lindsay Ashford was Theakston Award shortlisted author of Strange Blood. Caroline Oakley has been a judge for the Crime Writers Associaton Debut Dagger.