Zoe Kramer reviews Cast a Long Shadow, a collection of original crime short stories from Welsh women writers offering novel takes on the classic genre, edited by Caroline Oakley and Katherine Stansfield.
“The brighter the light, the deeper the shadow will be. But as that light dies, the shadows lengthen until they cover everything.” So writes Hazell Ward in the titular story Cast a Long Shadow in Honno’s latest crime anthology. This darkness is certainly present throughout the collection, manifesting itself in intriguing shapes of all kinds. It explores the myriad reasons why individuals can be drawn towards crime, both minor dalliances and bloodcurdling acts of violence. But what truly solidifies this body of work are the places where that darkness gives way to levity, in startling moments of companionship, love and humour. Katherine Stansfield and Caroline Oakley’s editing of the collection is attentive to the thematic links between stories. Even as the subject matter shifts drastically, a throughline can always be found between each story and the next, informing and conversing with one another. Equally, more abstract pieces are juxtaposed with action-packed ones so that the reader is never drawn into a lull in either direction.
The first story in the collection, Tiffany Murray’s “Song Fox” does not deliver crime in any kind of expected way. The crime in this story is interwoven with the natural world in a very compelling way. The sounds of the foxes meld with the songs and even the thoughts of the characters. Even as things take a turn for the worse, there is a haunting stillness and peace in the natural world, clouding the panic and horror. Murray’s adept and gripping prose voice makes this story a page turner and an excellent starting point to the collection.
Many of the other stories speak to primal and captivating fears. Ellen Davies’ “Simon Says” explores crime from a child’s perspective. The progression where play turns into violence is uniquely chilling, and employing a child’s voice adds a softness and vulnerability to the tale. The death in this story is made all the more grotesque in the innocence through which it was caused. The theme of childhood persists in the collection. Julie Ann Rees employs the fairy tale genre in “Jack and the Juniper Tree”, although with a decidedly adult take on the children’s classic. The story, told from a giant’s perspective, recounts a macabre and gory twist on the traditional fable, true to the tradition of the Brothers Grimm. The magic and whimsy of customary sanitised fairy tales is present, yet flipped on its head in innumerable horrific, yet wonderful, ways.
Other stories don’t so much leave the reader aghast but rather challenge their perception of crime with a deft subtlety. Kittie Belltree’s “The Pigs in the Middle” explores the rigid policing of cannabis and the flaws of the justice system, particularly in the treatment of disabled people. Even as the story touches on these heavy themes, Belltree’s narrator maintains a tongue-in-cheek attitude and a sardonic wit. The removal of violence from the crime narrative offers a sharper image of the genre in all of its complexities and contradictions. “Quirky Robbers” by Alison Layland elects to approach this crime-without-crime quandary in a slightly different way. This story follows an end of life journey to fight against deforestation. A grandmother spends her last hours in protest with her granddaughter, Tilly, before asking her to end her life. This act of violence is paradoxically merciful and loving, to the extent that it is essentially utterly nonviolent. And yet, Tilly is still plagued with guilt over what she’s done. It raises powerful questions about sacrifice, empathy and mercy.
Even among the stories that go unmentioned here there is a remarkable aptitude for both disaster and delight. This collection is an excellent taster menu for Welsh crime fiction. It displays the talents of many brilliant authors in a wide variety of styles – from capital “T” Tragic to unnerving to perplexing, and many more nuanced shades in between.
Cast a Long Shadow, edited by Caroline Oakley and Katherine Stansfield, is available via Honno Press.