In this gripping suspense novel from the bestselling author of the Sanctus trilogy, lead forensic expert Laughton Rees is back, this time investigating a series of missing women in a small town near the Forest of Dean—where she uncovers a dark and sinister plot, decades in the making.
Never go back into the woods. Never go back and never look back…
Midsummer’s Eve. Bonfires dot the English countryside and flicker in the ancient Forest of Dean as costumed revelers dance and drink the night away.
But when the sun rises, a local girl, Maddie Friar, has vanished, last seen heading to a party in a forest commune called “The Clearing.” Her sister Adele reports her missing but the local police say Maddie was a known party girl and probably ran off with some boy, or maybe the “Cinderman” got her, referring to a local legend of a forest spirit said to haunt the woods in search of a lost daughter.
Eminent criminologist and academic Dr. Laughton Rees also knows about the Cinderman. She has found dozens of historical missing persons cases in these woods, all women, all attributed to this legend. But she doesn’t believe in legends; she believes in facts, so she heads to the forest and, with help from Adele, starts questioning everyone, from the mysterious Earl, lord of the crumbling abbey in the heart of the forest, to the charismatic leader of The Clearing.
But as Laughton slowly begins to unravel the legend of the Cinderman and realizes it is bound by blood to Adele and Maddies’ dark past, she also discovers too late that the truth is far uglier, and far more dangerous, than any mythical monster.
Toyne's second mystery featuring criminologist Laughton Rees (after 2022's Dark Objects) further establishes the character as an effective series lead in the spirit of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta. Rees, whose estranged father was the commissioner of London's Metropolitan Police, consults for the U.K.'s National Crime Agency while conducting academic research on the connection between folklore and crimes. Those studies come in handy after 24-year-old Maddie Friar disappears from Cinderfield, a market town encircled by forest, on Midsummer's Eve. The woods near Cinderfield are reportedly the domain of the Cinderman, "some kind of forest phantom who's believed to prey on young women, particularly around certain dates like the summer solstice." That legend has been sustained by the disappearances of almost 60 women over 20 years, and when Rees learns about Friar's case, she heads to Cinderfield to investigate. Her efforts aren't welcomed by the area's chief constable, who suspects Friar, a woman with a lengthy criminal record, may not be missing at all. As Rees digs deeper and faces increasing resistance, she uncovers real-life horrors far scarier than any legend. Toyne makes the most of her creepy setting, and effectively conceals the truth behind the legend of the Cinderman until she's ready to reveal it. Everything here suggests that Rees merits a long series run.