Hinchcliffe, Sally - 'Out of a Clear Sky'
Manda, the main character in OUT OF A CLEAR SKY, does not have much luck with her friends and family. Her parents are awful: a drunk, addled mother and a father who is both emotionally absent and in love with another woman. Her boyfriend is a prig who (just before the book opens) has left her for another woman. And as the book progresses, Manda realises that she has a (male, naturally) stalker. Her only support comes from her sister, who herself is not around as much as Manda would like - or needs.
Perhaps to compensate for her unhappy relationships, Manda is in love with things - nature, in the shape of a yearning for the country in which she grew up, almost always referred to as "Africa" (although England is referred to as "England" and not "Europe" throughout). What Manda loves the most is birds, and via her relationship with the uptight Gareth, she's become a birdwatcher, part of a close-knit group who dash off at a moment's notice when a rare species is spotted somewhere. Professionally, Manda is an IT specialist, maintaining the local university's computer system and helping aged professors to cope with modern technology. She's used these skills over years to create a database for the group, of all the birds they have seen.
The dramatic structure of the book is driven by the opening description of Manda's discovery of a dead body while on a remote mountainside, and Gareth's leaving her for an "Essex girl" called Ruth. Interspersed with these events we learn more about Manda's past and how she copes with the loneliness of single life as well as Gareth's ineffectual attempts to persuade her to divide up their house and possessions. Each chapter of the book is the name of a species of bird - I enjoyed the one about the green parrots in Richmond park, as every April these birds fly down the nearby road where I live and strip the blossom from the cherry trees - it was amusing to have their presence documented so accurately.
Gradually, the reader learns how Manda has become obsessed with birdwatching; she despises Gareth for (she thinks) pretending to see rare species just when his companion is looking the other way or has left the observation post temporarily, and she's not above tampering with the computer when she feels slighted not just by Gareth but by the whole group, whom she feels ostracise her and take Gareth's side after the split.
Manda's stalker is David - he pretends to be a member of the birdwatching group and constantly appears wherever Manda goes, but she gradually becomes more suspicious of him. Does he really work in a garden centre, as he tells her? He seems to have an unnerving way of knowing exactly where she is and what she's doing - and eventually Manda realises that David is a super-hacker who has infiltrated her computer systems and is making her colleagues as well as her friends suspicious of her.
We become less and less sure of Manda's stability. What really happened in her childhood, and in particular to her mother? And what is going to happen to David and Gareth, both of whom displease her? OUT OF A CLEAR SKY is not a conventional work of crime fiction; as an aficionado of the genre I felt that some of the "crime" aspects were rather obvious, and the surprises not that surprising. But the book is a gripping enough read, Manda's character and past are oddly compelling, and you will know a lot more about birds when you've finished it than you did before you started.
Maxine Clarke, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.