Sixteen Horses (2021) – Greg Buchanan

Title:Sixteen Horses
Author:Greg Buchanan
Publisher/s:Mantle/Pan Macmillan SA
Date of publication:2021
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Pan Macmillan SA kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

“Dying places produced desperate people. Desperate people were not, as a rule, careful or subtle in their actions. She did not imagine the case would be difficult.”

Ilmarsh is a dying English seaside town that once thrived on the happiness and joy of families on holiday. In Greg Buchanan’s debut novel, Sixteen Horses, Ilmarsh will be forever marked by a hideous act and the kind of tragic events that can and will change a place forever.

On Well Farm on the outskirts of Ilmarsh, sixteen horse heads are discovered buried in the ground. Each head is found with just one eye exposed. Not one single horse lived on the farm inhabited by a father and his daughter who were living in their own solitary world of pain months before the horses were discovered. Alec Nichols, the local police detective, is the first professional on the case.

A day later forensic veterinarian Cooper Allen is asked to spend four days in the washed-out town and assist Nichols in the investigation. Allen knows absolutely nothing about detective work, and Nichols knows nothing about horses, and both of them have experienced their fair share of psychological trauma. Their only mission right now is to find out what happened to the animals, and what exactly is going on in Ilmarsh beyond the empty streets and the secretive inhabitants.

The horses all belonged to different people in town, and the surrounding farms, and the local riding school, and most of them appeared to have been sedated the night before they were rounded up and killed. The night before it all began the local vet, a young woman named Kate, was hired to make sure the horses remained calm during the town’s annual fireworks display. The only witness to the burial of the horse’s heads is an unknown homeless man, who after being interrogated by Nichols, disappears the very next day.

Cooper Allen was meant to stay four days and is still in Ilmarsh a month later, and no closer to discovering who did this, and why. In the meantime, she is working closely with Nichols, whose own work ethic is being questioned by the very people whom he has sworn to protect. As the two forced-to-be partners delve deeper and deeper into the disturbing mystery, the people of the town are becoming suspicious of their police detective, whom they still consider an outsider and a man with very controversial methods of searching for the truth.

“You didn’t have to be yourself. You didn’t have to hold close all the things you had suffered and still suffered, all the things you had done to others and that were still done to you. You could just pretend or forget.”

Long before Alec Nichols came to Ilmarsh he had a wife and a son. He still has a son, but the teenage Simon is a stranger to his father. Then one day his son goes missing. Nichols becomes obsessed with searching for his son after a car accident that Nichols can’t explain, and leaves his working relationship with Cooper in jeopardy. Cooper doesn’t know what to believe, and despite questioning all the horse-owners and vets in the area, she seems to be getting further from the truth as a dark history of violence reveals itself during her investigations.

When Nichols is removed from the investigation temporarily and Cooper is forced to work alone, people in the village begin to get fatally ill, and the rest slowly start to wake up from their own nightmares and choose to evacuate. All of a sudden Cooper is starting to feel watched – as though whoever buried the horses is still in Ilmarsh, waiting to commit even more heinous acts.

This novel is dark and twisted and contains seemingly unrelated stories about the people in and around this creepy town. Under the banners of the past lies something seething and menacing, and often times it feels as though the protagonists are living through an extended fever dream that encroaches upon even their waking hours. Sixteen Horses is sometimes difficult to swallow, and hard to fathom. The animal cruelty, in the beginning, sets the tone for something truly profound, and I urge you to quell that gag reflex and keep reading. The ending is shocking.

“Day after day we seemed to learn how awful the world could be, the things people could do. It’s why people imagined conspiracies. It made things manageable. It made things human.”

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