The Birthday Girl (2023) by Sarah Ward

“Have you any idea how many dead people there are on this island?”

The island of Eldey off the South Wales coast seemed to be the perfect place for Mallory Dawson to retreat to. Having left the police force due to being wounded in the line of duty, the role of night manager in the small holiday resort was the ideal location for her to get her bearing and decide on her next step – but it’s not going to be the relaxing job she thought it was.

Even when one of the staff falls ill and a storm cuts the island off from the mainland, Mallory doesn’t expect what will happen next. Because one of the guests is the Birthday Girl, who poisoned four of her friends at her birthday party when she was a child. And her party games are about to start all over again…

Now, dear reader, you might be thinking “here we go again”. The Puzzle Doctor has picked a modern thriller that the blurbs are calling “Christie-esque” about a bunch of people stuck on an island, and we know this rarely ends well. That Christie-esque tag is an albatross hanging over the blurb, a curse that almost always doom the book to mediocrity. But this is something different.

First of all, it’s written by Sarah Ward, who, for want of a better phrase, knows her stuff. Sarah wrote four excellent modern crime thrillers in the DC Childs series, followed by two gothic thrillers under the pseudonym Rhiannon Ward, and this is the start of a new series featuring the aforementioned Mallory Dawson.

It is something of a change of pace from the Childs series, as while it is set in the modern day, it’s less violent that those books. Not that this is a cosy mystery, not a chance, but Sarah hits just the right note, balancing believability with a ruthless killer and a twisty-turny plot. With regards the plot, Sarah makes an interesting choice with the possible killers, meaning that some readers might look beyond what has been suggested, and others, perhaps less experienced with crime novels, will take what is presented at face value. I’m not going to say anything more beyond the fact that I found the conclusion very satisfying. As for the “Christie-esque” line, it has far more in common with the Queen of Crime than most others that get that tag. The clue-ing isn’t multi-layered as Agatha (although there is one very clever idea that could (but won’t) pin-point the killer to the attentive reader) but everything else bar a drawing room denouement is spot on.

There’s far more to this than a Christie-esque plot, however, as this is an absolutely gripping read. The characters are people you want to find out more about, the threat of poison coming from almost anywhere adds a level of tension and as suspicion bounces around the hotel residents, I had a real dilemma when reading the book. I both couldn’t put it down but also didn’t want it to finish.

All in all, this is an excellent read, both as a mystery and a thriller. A strong start to a series and I’m curious to see how Sarah keeps the series progressing. Definitely worth checking out – far superior to most of the “stuck on an island, dying one at a time” books out there. This is how it is supposed to be done.

The Birthday Girl is out tomorrow from Canelo Crime in ebook (for an absolute pittance at the time of writing) and paperback. Many thanks for the review e-copy.

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