Last autumn I read a superb standalone thriller by Helen Fields – The Last Girl to Die – and loved it. Set on the Isle of Mull, it involved a missing girl, and lots of witchy lore and had a real sense of place and atmosphere. Having discovered this author, I couldn’t say no to her new book The Institution, which is as different to her previous one as you can get in the world of thrillers, and has a killer tag line:
They’re locked up for your safety.
Now, you’re locked in with them.
In the world’s most secure hospita/lprison for the criminally insane, ‘Heaven’ ward – on the top floor of the highest tower in the prison – houses up to six of the worst. When a pregnant nurse is murdered on the ward and her baby stolen – yes, you read that correctly – and a ransom for the four weeks premature baby demanded, Dr Connie Woolwine a top American profiler is called in to solve the murder and find the baby while it still lives. She has at most five days. She goes in undercover as the psychologist accompanying a new patient to the ward: a colleague from her time working in the UK, Brodie Baarda plays ‘Patient B’ the military serial killer occupying the vacant cell on the ward.
Connie will have her job cut out to interview all the imprisoned patients in her psych role without giving away that she’s profiling them, much to the annoyance of many of the ward’s staff which includes three doctors, (two psych, one medic/surgeon), a couple of nurses and two burly orderlies, but Connie has the Institute director’s full clearance. Baarda’s job is of course to see it from the inside out, but he will soon be nobbled taking him out for at least 24hrs. Away from the confines of the tower, Connie finds an ally in Boy, a young man who does odd jobs around the site, and he shows her the ropes of how the building works.
Connie finds the prisoners keen to tell their stories in their own ways, each a serial killer, but having very different personalities and modus operandi. As for the staff – the well-worn cliche ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!’ seems quite appropriate.
The clock is ticking – videos have been sent to the husband and parents of the nurse who died of a baby alive – but Connie is getting nowhere fast. Then a storm strikes – and the power goes out – and the suspense which had already been mounting steadily ratchets up a notch or three.
Although I’ll admit I found the premise of this novel rather contrived, it doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy its extreme tension and the schlocky-horror feel of things once the storm struck. I did find the relationship, well, the little that we saw of it, between Connie and Baarda hard to fathom. We’re told they had worked together before, but I didn’t know that this book was the second to feature this pairing, The Shadow Man tells that back story missing here. That said, The Institution worked pretty well on its own, but I would like to get to know these characters better.
This may be styled as a locked room thriller, but there is always a way out, and it is cleverly done. Added to that Fields is so good at making you change your mind over whodunnit all the time, you can never be sure until everyone else is ruled out. There’s a great visual element to this book, and I can just see it on the big screen, it has all the roller-coaster highs and lows you could want to keep you reading. I’ll certainly return to read more by Helen Fields.
Source: Review copy – thank you. Avon hardback, 420 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)