My Review of Portraits of the Dead by John Nicholl

portraits of the dead

The Blurb:

Emma didn’t know how long he hid, silent and unmoving, in the large Victorian wardrobe to the side of her single bed.

She didn’t know how long he peered, salivating and drooling, between the two heavy dark oak doors, and watched, mesmerised, as she slowly drifted into fitful sleep. She didn’t know what time he pushed the doors open and crept towards her in the drab grey darkness of the night.

Detective Inspector Gravel finds himself floundering when a local nineteen-year-old university student is abducted and imprisoned by a sadistic serial killer, who has already tortured and killed five young women.

How far would you go to save your life?

My Review:

Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite true to say I enjoyed reading all of Portraits of the Dead. Described as “a gripping serial killer thriller” this is indeed a powerfully written story; dark and sometimes with graphically violent passages that evoke images that made me cringe. (Perhaps the novel should come with a warning?! )

Yet the plot and John Nicholl’s style of writing  kept me hooked.This book is not purely about  brutality. There is humour, poignancy and empathy. The plotline following the serial killer is juxtaposed with the life stories and backgrounds of the two main police officers, Detective Inspector Gravell (Grav) and Detective Sergeant Clive Rankin, who strive to save the protagonist, Emma Jones, from the fate that has befallen five other murdered young girls..

These two male characters are portrayed as bluff yet compassionate.The  friendly yet professional relationship between them is credible and  their  dialogue distinguishes them to the reader. The protagonist is  well rounded and  both the internal and spoken dialogue of Emma carries the horror of the storyline, of her situation and is totally believable.

The antagonist , Goddard, while his actions are that of a sadistic and maniacal killer, is also so well written that he is convincing.

The only character I felt was occasionally implausible was Margaret Goddard, the antagonist’s mother. For me, her dialogue didn’t always work; bordering sometimes on melodrama.

My other problem was what I call ‘head hopping’ between characters. One moment  I was following the dialogue between two characters from the point of view of one of the main characters, the next was in the mind of the other, often minor, flat character who is either never seen again or is only in a short thread of  a side plot. But, as I say, this is a problem for me as a reader; it might not bother or even be noticed by other readers.

Sometimes novels are described as plot or character led. I felt that Portraits of the Dead is basically strong in both these aspects

It almost seems as an aside to mention the various settings but I should. The descriptions are spot on, give a strong sense of place and a realistic world for the characters to move around in.

Perhaps, every now and then, the narrative is slowed down by too many clauses, repetition of an action, an over-emphasis of a scene, a character’s’ thoughts. But this is a small point and one that could soon be rectified by tighter editing.

The book, intentionally or not (and, personally, I feel it is meant – but I could, of course, be totally wrong),  carries a huge message for anyone; do not always take the people you meet at face value.

And, just to intrigue you, I will say I loved the twist at the end of the novel.

To sum up; a well written story, a great plot and – if sometimes a little too graphic for me  (I often  watch murder dramas on TV through my fingers – yes, I’m a wimp!)-  a truly gripping serial killer thriller that I thoroughly recommend.

This book is available to preorder on:


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