[Lily, a solicitor, is visiting a prisoner in jail: she is handling his appeal]
There’s a polite cough behind us. A tall well-built dark-haired man... is standing at the door of the office. He was one of those waiting in the corridor, I realize. But instead of staring, he is smiling thinly. His hand is extended. His handshake squeezes my knuckles. This is a practised salesman, I remind myself.
Yet he doesn’t look like an archetypal prisoner, or, at least, not the type I’d imagined. There are no obvious tattoos, unlike the prison officer beside me, who is sporting a red and blue dragon’s head on his arm. My new client is wearing an expensive-looking watch and polished brown brogues which stand out among the other men’s trainers and are at odds with his green prison uniform. I get the feeling that this is a man who is more used to a jacket and tie.
commentary: This is a good honest holiday thriller, perfect for a long journey or a beach. It follows Lily and Carla from around 2000 to the present day, with some dips back into Lily’s childhood. We know from the beginning that someone is dead, stabbed. Lily and her husband were newly-weds when they met Carla, a neighbour’s child. Lily gets involved in Carla’s life, and also gets involved in a complex legal case. The consequences are going to follow all of them for all the intervening years. Both the main female characters are intriguing and carefully drawn, with all their faults and problems. And nobody is perfect, no-one as good as gold. There aren’t any great shocks or surprises in the book, but it has a good, twisty, unpredictable plot.
I though the early parts were a bit odd – as if they were taking place in no-time, or 20-25 years earlier. There is little in the way of computers or mobile phones, (this is 2000 remember) and the behaviour of the nuns and the RC community is bizarre in the extreme. The Catholic church has its faults, but I refuse to believe in a school where you will be expelled for being illegitimate. One of the nuns has some very inaccurate claims about the theology of redemption, and it is impossible to believe that an Italian family could be tracked down in the way described, with the information available.
And can I suggest that making a decision based on whether a magazine falls open at an odd or even page is not something that works? Every spread has two pages, and the odd number is always on the right and the even on the left, so, you know, not really picturing this as a big tense moment with a surprising outcome…
But other parts of the book rang with authenticity – there were sombre and believable accounts of trying to deal with special needs children, and some of the legal cases and the visits to the prison were full of great details. On the way in, Lily is asked if she has ‘sugar, Sellotape, crisps, sharp implements?’ in her briefcase, and is told:
‘They can use sugar to make hooch, Sellotape to gag you. And crisps to bribe them. It’s happened before, trust me.’The husband causes problems in this book, in various ways: this is just the latest in a collection of books about
toxic marriages- which is surely THE thriller subject of our times.
I have also recently read Behind Closed Doors by BA Paris - again, you are guessing about a difficult marriage. It is quite short and tight and very atmospheric, and you can read it in one compelling sitting. Afterwards, a hundred questions and objections arise, but it certainly does its job while you are reading, and I would recommend it highly for anyone looking for a holiday read.
So do these books mean we have no faith in marriage these days, or that we want to make our own relationships look good in comparison? Or are publishers and writers just choosing a topic that they know sells at the moment?
Three of the big bestsellers of recent years have been SJ Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Paula Hawkins’ Girl on a Train. On the blog I have also looked at Fiona Barton’s The Widow earlier this year (you can tell from the name…) and Alafair Burke’s The Ex. All perfectly decent books, but none of them would give you a good idea of marriage.
And that isn’t the half of it – I am constantly seeing other similarly plotted books, or being offered them by publishers. By now they can sound rather same-y: I expect the world will move on to another popular topic for gripping thrillers.
I’d love to hear other’s views – why so many fictional toxic marriages? Any books that you would recommend? And, what’s the next big crime theme going to be?
The picture, from the Missouri State Archives, shows a convicted murderer from the 1920s, Ernest McCormack.