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The Old Religion, Martyn Waites: Steve Cavanagh, Thirteen

Doug Johnstone is spirited away by an atmospheric Cornish thriller before being dropped into a New York courtroom

We have a couple of books this week that show the depth and breadth that exist within the thriller genre at the moment, ranging from folk horror to courtroom drama, and both of them packing a real punch.

First up is The Old Religion (Bonnier Zaffre, £12.99) by Martyn Waites. Waites is a very experienced British crime and thriller author, having written a string of bestsellers both under his own name and using the pseudonym Tania Carver. The Old Religion sees him starting another series of books, this time featuring a retired undercover police officer Tom Killgannon.

The book is set in St Petroc, a fictional Cornish town, where Killgannon is hiding under a witness protection programme from some seriously bad people. St Petroc is not a busy tourist place, more like the anonymous back of beyond, and that’s just the way Killgannon likes it. But things start to go awry as the book starts, when he first encounters Lila, a teenage runaway who has just escaped from a group of travellers after apparently being involved in a kidnapping.

a setting that is dripping in creepy Gothic atmosphere, and a plot that keeps the reader guessing until the terrific climax

Unfortunately Lila absconds with Killgannon’s witness protection identification and he has to go hunting her, something that threatens to reveal his true identity and something that also brings him into conflict with the powerful leaders of the local community.

And that’s where the old religion comes in, with echoes of the likes of The Wicker Man and other folk horror classics running through The Old Religion, in a community where paganism still has a strong pull on the human psyche.

Waites handles all this material expertly. It would’ve been easy to resort to clichés and stereotypes, especially when dealing with the local characters, but the author smartly eschews such stuff, creating fully rounded characters, a setting that is dripping in creepy Gothic atmosphere, and a plot that keeps the reader guessing until the terrific climax.

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From rural Cornwall to New York City next in the expert company of Steve Cavanagh’s Thirteen (Orion, £7.90). Cavanagh is a Northern Irish thriller writer who still holds down a day job as a human rights solicitor, and he has used his insider knowledge of the legal profession to deliver a terrific series of legal thrillers starring hotshot American lawyer Eddie Flynn.

Thirteen is the fifth book to feature Flynn, and the tagline on the front cover tells you everything you need to know about the story’s set up: “The serial killer isn’t on trial, he’s on the jury.”

That central hook along with Cavanagh’s breakneck prose pace and expert plotting make for a white-knuckle ride of a story. Flynn finds himself unexpectedly working on a high profile case, a celebrity from a Hollywood power couple who is accused of murdering his wife, but the real danger lies elsewhere, with the narration split between Flynn and the killer who has managed to manipulate himself onto the jury for the trial. The big question, of course, is why, but Cavanagh handles and subverts the reader’s expectations on that score and many others time and time again.

It’s something of a high-wire act, blending the machinations of a courtroom drama with the high-octane cat and mouse of a serial killer plotline, but Cavanagh delivers on both counts in spades, expertly cranking up the tension towards an explosive finale that will take the reader’s breath away. Cracking stuff.

The Old Religion by Martyn Waites (Bonnier Zaffre, £12.99)

Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh (Orion, £7.90)

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