The Institution by Helen Fields

I am absolutely delighted to share my thoughts on The Institution, the brand new Connie Woolwine thriller from Helen Fields. I’ve had this on my TBR since picking up a proof copy at Bloody Scotland last September and it’s been sitting on the book trolley, judging me and urging me to pick it up ever since. I finally did and I am so very grateful to publisher Avon books for the advance copy. Here’s what it’s all about:

Source: Advance Reader Copy
Release Date: 02 March 2023
Publisher: Avon UK

About the Book

They’re locked up for your safety.
Now, you’re locked in with them.

Dr Connie Woolwine has five days to catch a killer.

On a locked ward in the world’s highest-security prison hospital, a scream shatters the night. The next morning, a nurse’s body is found and her daughter has been taken. A ransom must be paid, and the clock is ticking.

Forensic profiler Dr Connie Woolwine is renowned for her ability to get inside the mind of a murderer. Now, she must go deep undercover among the most deranged and dangerous men on earth and use her unique skills to find the girl – before it’s too late.

But as the walls close in around her, can Connie get the killer before The Institution gets her?

A claustrophobic, haunting crime thriller that will keep you up at night, perfect for those who couldn’t put down The Sanatorium and Amy McCulloch’s Breathless.

My Thoughts

Wowsers. This book well and truly hit the spot. Murdered nurse, missing child and a ward full of some of the worst psychopaths Connie Woolwine has ever met and a staff whose approach to their ‘care’ ranges from kindness to virtual torture, and you it’s a pretty safe bet that we’re in for quite a tense and chilling journey. Helen Fields did not disappoint. From Connie’s emotional and yet clinical introduction to the victim, the slow and deliberate introduction to the investigation, the author had me hooked, intrigued, repulsed, and well and truly engaged in watching Connie in what really was a race against time to save a child who was merely a pawn in a truly heinous game. But when faced with a ward full of men whose capacity for violence is unquestionable, finding a killer is a big ask. Like finding one, very specific needle, in a huge pile of … well, needles!

I really like Connie Woolwine as a character. She has a somewhat unconventional – in the other characters’ words, odd – approach to psychology, but it is one which seems to work. She is logical, often detached, but focused on justice, and getting into the mind of the victim, displaying empathy and understanding, is as important as chasing down the perpetrator. She has her job cut out for her the guilty party this time around though as she has not one, but five, fractured and twisted minds to get to grips with, as well as those of her ‘colleagues’ as she goes undercover in the secure ‘Heaven Ward’ of the eponymous institution. And with her own complicated past, something that is recounted throughout the book for those not aware of her backstory, this is a case which really gets under her skin. Her vulnerability is perhaps a surprise given her usually calm and daring personality, but beautifully woven into the story, setting us up for what will be a shocking and pulse pounding showdown.

I love how Helen Fields has chosen to introduce the potential suspects in this story – the five men convicted of crimes so heinous they are never expected to see the outside world again. Watching her as she tried to work out who had the capacity for this particular level of violence by revisiting the reasons for their incarceration, allows us to get an understanding of their crimes without the imagery becoming too gratuitous. There is no denying how dark their crimes are, and I’d be lying if I said there weren’t many skin crawling and jaw dropping moments, but then if it was an accidental shooting or a domestic homicide, they would be in a normal prison and not locked away in an isolated and foreboding mental hospital.

As for the staff, they seem to be a walking, breathing (at least for now) example of the old adage ‘you don’t need to be mad to work here, but it helps’. Bitter, twisted, jaded, damaged and just plain vindictive – well they are just some of the nicer things that could be said about most of the staff. It kept me on edge, never knowing which of them to trust and sensing that extra tension, the heightened jeopardy that faced Connie as she searched for the truth. To be honest, I felt more relaxed around the Institution’s ‘Guests’. At least they never attempted to hide who they really were. Or … did they? I detested practically every member of staff, was suspicious of the rest, and very conflicted when it came to determining any levels of guilt. The author has knocked it out of the park in terms of creating mistrust and misdirection and I loved it.

Connie is not alone in her investigation and it was lovely to see Brodie Baarda back working alongside her. He has his own challenges in terms of providing support, his ability to engage seriously limited by circumstance and the nature of his undercover disguise. It really worked though, exposing some of the tougher aspects of life on the ward, and creating a huge amount of suspicion as well as serving as a vehicle to direct suspicion towards different individuals are different moments in time. Connie and Brodie make a brilliant team, a real chemistry between them which helped me be even more invested in their fates – and lets just say that the author’s ability to be super cruel to her protagonists is in overdrive once again (still not forgiven for One For Sorrow by the way).

The setting of this book is perfect, the isolation adding to the chilling atmosphere and the sense of despair that infuses the ward, along with the anger and capacity for violence that underpins the story. It’s tense, exciting, heart thumping action, with scenes that will make skin crawl and steal your breath away, especially when Connie finds herself face to face with the wrath of Dr Roth. Those scenes felt like a violation, building the anger, and therefore the pace and tension, towards a very intense and dramatic finale. it’s not all darkness though and there are some lighter and tender moments. Whether that results in a positive outcome for this case remains to be seen. You’ll just have to read the book to find that out. Most definitely recommended.

And it’s getting one of these.

About the Author

Helen Fields studied law at the University of East Anglia, then went on to the Inns of Court School of Law in London. After completing her pupillage, she joined chambers in Middle Temple where she practised criminal and family law for thirteen years. After her second child was born, Helen left the Bar. Together with her husband David, she runs a film production company.

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