Everyone loves Summer Ryan. A model student and musical prodigy, she's a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama - especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.
Then Summer goes missing. Grace is already simmering, and with this new tragedy the police have their hands full keeping the peace. Only Raine throws herself into the search, supported by a most unlikely ally.
But perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye . . .
Chris Whitaker's debut novel TALL OAKS garnered a lot of positive publicity and a CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger award. Haven't had a chance to read the first novel yet, but when ALL THE WICKED GIRLS arrived it bounced to the top of the pile based on reputation and expectation alone.
Whitaker is an Englishman, but ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is set in the Alabama of many movies and American mythology. A depressed place, populated by struggling families, dirt poor but tight, close, loving and caring. Deeply religious, these are the sorts of people you feel would be wheeled out when you want to explain "salt of the earth".
When fifteen-year-old Summer Ryan packs a bag, leaves a note saying "I'm sorry", and disappears, the biggest surprise seems to be that it's the "good girl" who has gone. Her twin Raine is the one most likely to get into trouble. Not Summer, the music prodigy, the model student, the golden girl (obviously there's deliberation in the choice of names for these characters). Raine, fortunately, is exactly the sort of person that isn't going to let something like Summer's disappearance roll into yet another mystery. She's the one who is prepared to ask the question their parents, the town and the local Police Chief are trying to avoid - is "the Bird" back? This unknown perpetrator was assumed responsible for the abduction of five young girls in a neighbouring county, but everybody had hoped he was dead or gone. Everybody also assumes the girls are dead - although no sign of them has ever been found.
Symbolism is writ large in ALL THE WICKED GIRLS. From the Summer and Raine names of the twins, through to a town called Grace, which is anything but, and the massive storm that is brewing - meteorological and psychological. Combined with references to good and evil, and the twins aligned with the different sides, God, the Devil and the Church, and the darkness of the atmospherics matches the overwhelming message being delivered. The narrative is supported by the sense of a very odd place, populated by some very odd people, including the morally ambiguous, looming presence of the local Pastor. The idea that Raine's obsession with her sister's disappearance, supported by some of the classic outsiders in the community like this, eventually putting pressure on a dispirited, almost lackadaisical Police Chief does make sense, as does the stirring of the twin's father and his redneck mates.
The narrative switches viewpoint between Summer's voice in the lead up to her disappearance, and the third person telling of the story of Raine and her fellow seekers - Noah (hero cop's son), Purv (son of a local construction worker, victim of shocking violence from his father) and Police Chief Black as he finds his cop's instinct and drive again. Grace, is, it turns out, a town steeped in religious fervour, and not short of possible suspects in Summer's disappearance, and that of the five earlier possible victims.
The sense of this place, the culture and the society in which the action takes place is palpable, uncomfortable and overwhelming. The characters all turn out to have hidden depths and secrets, and it often feels like the whole place is operating on lies. It's deep, dark and beautifully written, with not a hint of an outsider author. The message is, like the atmospherics, on the heavy side - part noir / part morality play, and because of that there's no way you could call this entertaining reading. ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is, however, extremely involving reading, requiring commitment on the part of the reader to empathise and eventually understand that not everything here is what it seems.
Review - From the Shadows, Neil White
He hides in the shadows, watching, waiting, until the time is right . . .
Mary Kendricks, a smart, pretty, twenty-four-year-old teacher, has been brutally murdered and Robert Carter is accused of killing her.
When defence lawyer, Dan Grant inherits Carter's case only weeks before the trial starts, everyone expects him just to babysit it, but Dan's not that kind of lawyer. He'll follow the evidence - wherever it takes him.
Neil White is a new to me author, and one that is now on the to be read list. FROM THE SHADOWS is the first in the Dan Grant / defence lawyer series. It appears that there is also a 5 or so book series based around DC Laura McGanity, 3 books in the Joe & Sam Parker series and at least one standalone. Which begs the question why did it take so long for me to notice? Now I'm really kicking myself as if FROM THE SHADOWS, lawyer Dan Grant and his investigator Jayne Brett are anything to go by, I've got quite a few books to slot into the impossibly large reading queue in these parts.
Legal thrillers can sometimes be a little hit and miss for this reader, with the reason for a lawyer doing a bit of investigating on the part of their clients not always absolutely believable. The inclusion in this novel of Jayne Brett smooths a lot of that, as is the idea that Grant finds himself handling the case of accused murder Robert Carter at the very last minute. All of the setup items in the plot work well, providing context and motivation without the need for suspension of disbelief.
The two main characters, Dan Grant and Jayne Brett are well defined, flawed and capable of working closely together. The relationship is friendly, the reasons for their working partnership and brand of friendship are feasible, plus there's co-operation with just enough angst to make them believable. Grant might be the good bloke in the scenario but that's not overblown or sanctimonious, his difficult relationship with his disapproving father an ongoing thorn in his side. Brett on the other hand has a more dangerous spectre hanging over her head, with the family of her dead abusive boyfriend out for revenge. The inclusion of a strong supporting cast of different types of people gives the human factors of the plot much to work with - from Grant's business partner, through to the lawyer originally tasked with the defence of Robert Carter, and those close to the victim.
The plot's well done, with a good contrast between the requirements of defending the accused and a search for the truth come what may. Brett is a good investigator - dogged, determined and fearless without being overly reckless, she's able to work her way into conversation with many people, quietly looking for the reasons behind so much reluctance on the part of witnesses to get involved, or if they do, why they are telling so many lies. All the while there's an unknown person lurking and threatening. This aspect isn't overblown, it bubbles along in the background, adding to the tension, without feeling manipulative or staged.
A terrific thriller, FROM THE SHADOWS, is fast-paced and populated by extremely interesting characters embroiled in a clever story plot that twists, turns and sneaks around more than enough to keep the reader guessing until the end.