Author of the Month

Name: Stuart Neville

First Novel: The Twelve

Most Recent Book: The House of Ashes

'I never thought I would read such a powerful book in the first month of 2022.'

For Sara Keane, it was supposed to be a second chance. A new country. A new house. A new beginning with her husband Damien. Then came the knock on the door.

Elderly Mary Jackson can't understand why Sara and her husband are living in her home. She remembers the fire, and the house burning down. But she also remembers the children. The children who need her, whom she must protect.

'The children will find you,' she tells Sara, because Mary knows she needs help too. Sara soon becomes obsessed with what happened in that house nearly sixty years ago - the tragic, bloody night her husband never intended for her to discover. And Mary - silent for six decades - is finally ready to tell her story.

I am not the fastest reader in the land, but I read this book in two days. Yes, I did sleep and eat in between readings, but Mary and Sara’s stories enthralled me. As I got deeper in to the story there was a little something familiar about this book. Then I had my Eureka! moment. ‘The House of Ashes’ is the novel Ruth Rendell, writing as her alter-ego Barbara Vine, did not write! As with the Vine novels, the past is not dead and buried, and as with bodies too, the past can rise up to the surface and impact the present.

Sara is the present and in a coercive marriage. It is not until Mary arrives, dazed and confused, becomes the catalyst for Sara’s emancipation as her predicament mirrors that of Mary's sixty years ago. It is this symbiosis between Sara and Mary that leads both women to face their fears.

And Neville does it so subtly, ratcheting up that suspense in that remote house where nobody visits and the inhabitants eat and sleep within their own little world. There is something Gothic about this piece of work, there is a horror lurking, but you can’t quite not go there. You know the who, but as Rendell herself said many times, the ‘why’ is what interested her most. The same can be said for this book. Neville superbly shines a light on a turgid part of life, whilst bringing some light to the shadows where the children can be glimpsed. There is a supernatural element here, but it does not distract from what goes on in The Ashes. If anything, it highlights even more that evil comes in many guises and can be living right next door to you. Could the neighbours of the Wests imagine the horror perpetrated in 25 Cromwell Street? The same could be said for those living in The Ashes, the perpetrators and the victims under one roof.

What goes on in The Ashes unfortunately we have read about on TV and online. I won’t say more, but Neville doesn’t go for being sensationalist about his subject matter. Instead, he deals with nuances and the slow build up to violence. Neville details what happened in The Ashes sixty years ago, but it is the why and how that intrigued me and took control of me until I reached that final page. What happens in The Ashes is shocking, but also felt inevitable. After all this darkness, Neville does leave us with a ray of sunshine that sends the shadows scattering.

I never thought I would read such a powerful book in the first month of 2022. ‘The House of Ashes’ will be rolling around your mind for days, if not weeks. This is such a powerful book and for my money, will be one of the biggest of this year. Neville has set the bar extremely high.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) You say ‘The House of Ashes’ is the most difficult novel you have written to date. Why is that?
There were a lot of false starts over several years because I couldn’t seem to find a way into the story. Although I had a rough idea of what I wanted to write about, it took me a while to figure out who the protagonists were, and their voices. Once those fell into place, it went pretty smoothly, but it took a lot of time and work to get there.
2) ‘The House of Ashes’ deals with the sensitive issue of slavery/captivity. What was the nucleus that made you want to write this book?
It was very loosely inspired by a real life murder-suicide that took place in Northern Ireland around fifteen years ago, but as the idea started to form, I realised I couldn’t make fiction out of something that had happened so recently. So the idea began to drift further and further away from its initial inspiration and became something quite different.
3) There is an element of ghostly apparitions woven into the story. It is always difficult to weave a crime story with supernatural tones without turning it into a horror story. Were you conscious of not leaning too much into supernatural to give balance to the story of Sara, Esther, Mary, Mummy Noreen and Mummy Jo?
I’ve often threaded supernatural elements through my stories, going right back to my debut novel, ‘The Twelve’. I like that grey area between thriller and horror that authors such as John Connolly and Thomas Harris have explored to great effect. I like to keep things ambiguous, though; are these really supernatural occurrences or simply manifestations of the characters’ own fears? And I honestly do think crime readers are far more open-minded about the blurring of genres than publishers give them credit for.
4) Whereas Mary’s voice is sixty years in the past, Sara is in the present. Sara is in a coercive, gaslighting, abusive marriage. Her circumstance appeared to mirror what had gone before and seemed to ‘awaken’ the house, The Ashes. Was this your intention?
The house ¬— The Ashes, named after the trees that surround it — is the constant in the story. It’s the thing that brings Mary and Sara together to form a bond that builds through the story. It’s hard to say if these things are ever intentional, but the house is almost a character in itself.
5) Mary’s ‘voice’ is spoken colloquially. How did you find Mary’s ‘voice’ to bring this novel the humanity it needed?
I read a book called ‘Country’ by Michael Hughes, an old friend of mine, set in the Irish borderlands. It’s written entirely in local Ulster-Scots dialect, and reading it made me realise that was the voice Mary needed to speak in. The reader needed to see the world entirely through Mary’s eyes, and the key to that was the language.
6) With your experience as a writer, what advice would you give to anyone attempting their first novel?
I’m not a believer in writing advice because it assumes what works for one person will work for the next, which is often not the case. Having said that, one piece of advice I’d give is as soon as you’ve finished your first novel, write another. And then another. Unless you come from a writing background such as journalism, it’ll probably take a few attempts to find your voice. Revision is important, but don’t get bogged down rewriting your first book over and over again. Far better to set it aside and write something new. The second book will almost certainly be better than the first, and the third will be better than the second.
7) If you were stranded on a desert island, which three crime novels would you want with you?
American Tabloid - James Ellroy for its dense plotting. I could return to it over and over again and still find something new. Red Dragon - Thomas Harris is the finest suspense novel ever written, and the way the most hateful villain becomes so sympathetic is a masterclass in characterisation. The End of Everything - Megan Abbott for her urgent, whispering voice.

Stuart Neville photo (c) Johanne Atkinson