Cover Stone Heart Deep by Paul Bassett Davies (Lightning Books)


With foreign holidays still only slowly returning, how about a remote Scottish island? One with a freezing-cold loch that contains deep secrets, a populace who seem eerily calm and controlled – and a rather strange shortage of children?

If you were brought up on the cult classic The Wicker Man or the page-turning adventures of Robert Louis Stevenson, you might be booking your Airbnb right now.

Or conversely running screaming in the opposite direction.

But if you’re holding a copy of Paul Bassett Davies’ latest thriller Stone Heart Deep buckle your seat-belts and get ready for an exhilarating ride.

Stone Heart Deep

SHD introduces us to investigative reporter Adam Budd. We first meet him secretly filming a sting operation to take down East European traffickers in underage girls. Dangerous, but potentially award-winning.

However, soon the mood changes, as Adam’s award success is interrupted by news that his mother has died. They’d been estranged, but she’s left him a huge, ramshackle mansion – Stone Heart House.

The first catch is that the house stands on the remotest of remote Scottish islands.

The second is that the islanders turn out to be even more suspicious than the traffickers. No sooner has Adam arrived (by the only ferry, across stormy seas) than he’s involved in a car accident that kills one of the locals.

Worse, it seems that everybody – including the island’s policeman – wants him to lie about it.

Before long, it becomes apparent that there are deep undercurrents in the island’s society that could suck him under. The only person who he feels he can trust is a local lawyer, Harriet. But even she is acting strangely.

Classic adventure

If some of these building blocks seem familiar, then it’s certainly the case that Davies draws on elements that many of us will recognise.

Given this, the tight-lipped suspicious islanders and the outsider from south of the Border could easily have been clichés. Instead, Davies manages generally to keep us on our toes.

We are never quite sure what to make of the island’s middle-aged boy-racer of a taxi driver, Ogden; or the actions of the elderly doctor, Druce, who might, or might not, have hastened a death; or indeed the sympathetic but strangely guarded young lawyer, Harriet, who Adam may be falling for.

Having said that, some of the minor characters tend to blur together and I occasionally had to refer back to remind myself who someone was.

It is striking that Davies has Adam narrate his own story in the first person. Nowadays, first person narrators are inevitably unreliable, yet Adam tells his story straight – with no trace of irony. What we hear is what we get.

We learn more about Adam as the story develops, but this means the first half relies more on mood and action than on character development.

The effect is to create an almost retro mood that harks right back to the classic Scottish adventures of Louis Stevenson or Walter Scott.

What is impressive is the way Davies uses this material to create a story that is both gripping and thought-provoking.

Going deep

Furthermore, the novel is about something.

Too often, it seems to me, today’s novels are either serious and unreadable or fun and shallow.

Stone Heart Deep is unafraid to be entertaining and at the same time, appropriately, to go deep. Because, in the heat of the conflict, Davies is exploring an important topical debate between logic and emotion. To ask whether it is better to be swayed by your feelings or to be coldly rational in your thinking.

Meanwhile, the story throws up a number of profound questions about how we bring up our children to cope in this world.

And the answers aren’t easy ones.

This could hardly come at a more important time: a time when we are all being asked to take sides and to decide what we really believe.

New direction

But don’t let me make the book sound like a philosophical treatise. This is a ripping yarn that builds to a nail-biting climax.

Davies has, up till now, been known for his comedy. This new novel takes him in a totally new direction. I hope he doesn’t give up the comedy, but I’m fascinated to see where this new road leads.

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