Katie meets Jamie in a bar. She's a young office worker, he's a prison officer, and they're both living at home with their mothers. He's instantly interested in her, and direct about it, though he turns down her advances, explaining that he wants to get to know her "properly" first. There are some early warning signs - he doesn't ask Katie anything about herself, he orders her drinks without checking what she likes, and he insists on walking her home when she'd prefer a taxi to rest her aching feet - but Katie brushes them off and decides to give things a go with him.
From this first encounter, the narrative jumps ahead to "now", just after Katie's body has been recovered from the river. The detective assigned to the case, Daniel Whitworth, doesn't have much experience investigating homicide in the small English town of Widringham, and besides that, he's looking forward to his retirement. His assessment is quick: "The body had all the hallmarks of a mundane, self-inflicted death. Your standard-issue female corpse."
While Whitworth and his trainee, Detective Constable Brookes, are happy to write off Katie's death as a suicide - an open-and-shut case of "middle-class disappointment" - the staff and residents at the women's refuge where Katie worked aren't so sure it's that simple.
In writing this remarkably assured and compelling debut, Jessica Moor has drawn on her own experience of women's refuges. She spent a year working in the sector before writing her first novel, and while following the classic thriller format, she carefully weaves in astute social commentary on domestic abuse, psychological trauma and the impact of funding cuts on support services.
Keeper may lack the whodunit suspense of a traditional detective story, but Moor builds edge-of-your-seat tension with a mounting sense of dread. Chapters alternate between "then" and "now", detailing the deterioration of Katie's relationship with Jamie and the progress of the police investigation. Detective Whitworth is a weary, old-school cop, who resents having to do domestic violence training ("Can these bloody women not look after themselves?" he gripes) and is so preoccupied comparing the women at the refuge to stereotypes of Muslims, sex workers and drug addicts that he barely hears what they have to say.
He scoffs at online rape threats levied at the refuge director as "just background noise" and when confronted with the internet troll responsible for the harassment, Whitworth empathises with the young man and chooses not to issue an official warning ("I don't want to cause trouble for you," he says gently).
It's unusual to read a detective novel where the detective is so negligent and blinkered by his own biases that he gets in the way of his investigation, but Moor doesn't dismiss Whitworth as a bad man. We learn about his love for his hard-to-read teenage daughter, how disoriented he feels in the modern world and his sympathy for the families in the refuge.
Whitworth frequently clashes with Val Redwood, the refuge director, who is fiercely protective of the women in her care yet increasingly challenged by shrinking resources. Through the other characters at the refuge, Moor gives a chilling insight into the breadth of domestic abuse, illustrating how it affects women across generations, backgrounds and family dynamics. These stories are often harrowing, and always sensitively handled by Moor.
We gain glimpses into the inner lives of a 19-year-old escaping her violent brother, a mother-of-two terrified she'll lose custody of her young boys, a new mother tempted to return to her well-to-do husband, and a wife of 50 years who looks back on decades of abuse and observes: "The trick was to never let the bruises fully heal, to never remember what life was like without them. Then it didn't seem like too much to bear."
Most effective is Moor's account of how Katie fell into the cycle of abuse. It almost seems to happen without her noticing until it's too late, and the narrative clearly elucidates how a smart, capable woman with a group of supportive friends can become totally isolated and find herself trapped in a toxic relationship. Moor's voice is calm and measured, and she moves seamlessly between the ignorance of Detective Whitworth to Katie's helplessness to the fear and distrustfulness of the women in the refuge.
Her characterisation of Jenny, a heroin addict and sex worker who plays a crucial role, is less convincing, particularly the blunt, colloquial first-person passages. But throughout, Moor's prose is sharp and possessed of striking emotional intelligence.
This is not an original story, but it's the kind of story that needs telling over and over again. There are no tidy resolutions - the rejection of a neat conclusion stays true to the novel's messy, complicated portrait of abuse - and the shocking, tragic ending may leave readers feeling quite hopeless. Yet in capturing the frighteningly common, everyday nature of abuse, Moor has crafted a superb and visceral novel, and for all its grit and bleakness, you won't be able to put it down.