In her latest novel, The Couple at No.9, Claire Douglas explores the nightmare scenario of what happens when building work unearths human remains in the back garden of a young couple’s new home.
When pregnant Saffron Cutler moves into 9 Skelton Place with boyfriend Tom and sets about renovations, the last thing she expects is builders uncovering a body. Two bodies, in fact. Forensics indicate the bodies have been buried at least thirty years, which leads the police to question the cottage’s former owner – Saffy’s grandmother, Rose.
Rose’s Alzheimer’s means her memory is increasingly confused. She can’t help the police – but it is clear she remembers something. As Rose’s fragmented memories resurface, and the police dig ever deeper, Saffy fears she and the cottage are being watched…
Claire Douglas takes a situation most of us thankfully only ever see from the helicopter footage on the news, once the forensics tent is up, and looks at what it’s like for the homeowners in whose back garden these bodies are discovered.
Saffy and Tom have only recently moved in and are busy renovating the cottage before their baby arrives. Everything seems to be going to plan until the grim discovery not only calls a halt to their building work but also upends their lives. Their new home becomes a crime scene, the hot topic of village gossip and speculation and the focus of a media circus. It also feels less like home and much less safe all of a sudden. My heart went out to Saffy and Tom for the unimaginable shock and despair they feel at finding themselves in such a disturbing situation, effectively confined to a house of horrors that was meant to be their dream home.
Claire Douglas isn’t content to leave it at that and here’s where The Couple at No.9 takes its first of many fiendishly clever turns. Their cottage actually belongs to Saffy’s gran and, while Saffy has many happy memories from the time they spent together there, Rose’s memories are altogether less reliable because she’s an Alzheimer’s patient now living in a nearby care home. All of which means that Saffy and the reader have to figure out how much Gran knows about what went on, the extent of her involvement (if any), match people to the names she mentions and determine whether or not they’re involved in this case or wholly unrelated randoms, while unlocking the secrets buried along with the bodies. Preferably before the police do.
The reader does have a slight advantage over Saffy here but often I was left reeling. There were other reasons for this as well but at times Gran seems to offer up a new name whenever they speak to her and I had to work hard to keep track of who everyone was. I’m sure this was Claire Douglas’s intention, partly done so that we feel some of Gran’s confusion, together with the agonising frustration not only of trying to have a conversation with an Alzheimer’s patient but of being someone suffering from it who still has more lucid moments.
I thought the way Claire Douglas handled Gran and her Alzheimer’s was sensitively done but she also uses it to good advantage here. Not that this is solely Saffy and her Gran’s story. Saffy’s partner, Tom, deserves a special shout-out for being such a decent man but Lorna, Daphne, Theo and his Dad are also characters well worth a mention as they add depth and shape to the book’s wider story. I’ll leave you to discover how for yourselves.
The Couple at No.9 is a tense and incredibly claustrophobic novel: it’s an unnerving suspense with a relatable young couple caught up in a homeowner’s worst nightmare. Claire Douglas is an astute author. She knows exactly what to reveal and when and never fails to surprise along the way. Her novel twists and turns as sharply as if she’s running us around tight switchbacks over vertiginous drops. It’s fascinating yet unnerving and I loved where she went with this and that I didn’t fully appreciate how apt the title is until I reached the very end. Can’t recommend this one enough.
The Couple at No.9 by Claire Douglas is published by Penguin Michael Joseph UK. It’s available as an ebook (with the audiobook and paperback due out on 30 September) from Amazon UK (affiliate link), Apple Books, Hive and Kobo. You can follow Claire Douglas on Twitter.
My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.