Silent Key by Laurel Hightower
Flame Tree Press, £12.96 paperback, £20 hardback
Reviewed by Nadya Mercik
Silent Key, being primarily a horror and supernatural story, has sturdy elements of a police detective and crime story and even some elements of historical espionage, which work wonderfully together. On top of that, reading it was almost like watching a film in book form.
Cam Ambrose is a former NYPD detective who worked on Russian gangs for years. However, after the sudden and violent death of her husband, her life changes. Not only does it turn out that her spouse had lots of secrets and wasn’t the man she thought him to be, but her daughter is now haunted by the world of the supernatural. In the hope of amending the situation and running away from the horrors, Cam agrees to her dad’s offer to live on the ranch of her late uncle Bert. Together with her sworn brother, Dimi, a deserter from the KGB and a former member of a Russian gang, they arrive in Texas, but the terrible events only spike there. Cam receives a package with codes and unclear clues from her uncle’s lawyer. She also finds out that her husband Tony had come here more often and even worked with her uncle on some mystery. With every new discovery, Cam is only more desperate because the solutions she is offered are in no way acceptable. In addition to the supernatural trying to kill them, another Russian assassin follows them. But Cam will do everything in her power to protect her daughter.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a mixture of different genre elements that work really well together and help to keep suspense and intrigue till the very end. In one of his notes, Uncle Bert tells Cam not to trust people, even those close to her, and throughout the story, you keep suspecting most people in Cam’s surroundings. The psychology of the characters is built well. Even though Cam is a no-nonsense person and an experienced policewoman, she finds it difficult to get over her husband’s death despite his betrayal. She also finds herself in a marginal position – with deaths happening around her family, it is only natural for her to try and solve them, but she doesn’t have the authority anymore. Neither can she tell her former colleagues the whole truth; as a result, they begin to suspect her, too. I really liked how Laurel Hightower drew the delineation. Cam, who always considered ghosts just part of her favourite horror genre, starts believing in them straight away, and so does Dimi because this affects the person they care about, Cam’s daughter, Sammy. However, it doesn’t stretch to other people. Just like in real life, when we understand the maladies and complications our dearest have that the outsiders cannot fully perceive.
The story is well-paced. Even the beats where the characters spend time on the ranch, ponder over the situation or discuss their steps don’t bog down the story. That’s why I compared the book to the film earlier – it does unfold in a very precise, beat-like way, like a well-scripted movie. It even has a love arc intertwined with the rest of the madness.
When you finally find out what exactly is happening to Cam’s family and how it all started, there is still no evident solution as to how they are going to deal with the situation. There are a few people who offer help, but they are untrustworthy. In the end, Cam is dragged into one of the options rather than coming to face it herself. It feels logical because, despite all her attempts and determination to protect her daughter, she is ill-equipped to stand against them. The ending flows naturally; however, I felt like it could have had a bit more catharsis to it. The supernatural loop is closed in just two short chapters, and I wished to know a bit more about Bert’s past and his involvement, perhaps even more of the connection with Russia and the whole back story (the author gives us some details, but there is definitely a whole separate story in there that could be told). However, the ghosts don’t fully leave Cam’s family, which left me wondering how their lives are going to go in the future. A small thing that was slightly nagging at me as I was reading was a few phrases in Russian that weren’t given correctly, but there is a high chance that most people won’t even know that.
All in all, if you are looking for a cinematic suspense novel in which the protagonist is trying to stop the ghosts from killing everyone in a very peculiar way, with the mystery going back to the Cold War times, Silent Key is definitely your story.