Crime novels featuring ludicrous scenarios where numerous ciphers get offed in a variety of ways seem to be going out of fashion. The new trend is for more realistic accounts of crimes, focusing on the minutiae of investigation and the frequently dull and frustrating aspects of detection. Fiona Barton’s debut is firmly of this type and it’s utterly gripping.
Instead of piling on the bodies, Barton uses one case that’s quite harrowing enough. A toddler has disappeared from her front garden and the resulting search proves fruitless. Gradually, the police zero in on a trio of ne’er-do-wells, one of whom, Glen Taylor, becomes the prime suspect.
But the book opens with Glen already dead in an accident and the case unresolved. The widow of the title, Jean Taylor, is being doorstepped by a particularly persistent crime reporter. Kate Waters offers female empathy as bait while being utterly ruthless in getting the story, delighting in the wiles that trump her rivals.
But who’s manipulating who? The power struggles haven’t ended with creepy, insignificant Glen’s death.
Throughout Barton focuses on the symbiotic, frequently uncomfortable relationship between police, the media, and the victims or witnesses of crime. Little Bella’s mother, while initially overawed by the newspapers’ attentions, quickly catches on to her own value. Her developing skill in handling the media is as admirable as it is faintly distasteful. And, of course, there’s the question of why little Bella was left alone for so long in the first place.
Each section is headlined “The Widow”, “The Detective”, “The Reporter” and so on, according to whose perspective is being examined. Jean is the one who gets a first-person narrative, though, as she reveals her private relief that her husband has died, because it means “no more of his nonsense”, a chilling phrase that Barton cleverly leaves hanging. So, is Jean complicit, browbeaten or ignorant – wilfully or otherwise? Come to that, is Glen even guilty?
It’s a risk to focus on someone so unappealing, yet Jean, while not exactly likeable, commands a certain amount of sympathy. No one signs up for being the focus of a media storm at the altar, after all.
The relationship between Kate and Detective Bob Sparkes is well drawn: they’re on the same side, though not on the same team. Motives and methodology are well set out, and the journalistic scenes ring very true – Barton has decades of experience in this field.
She cleverly details how each individual copes with a long investigation without ever lessening the tension. The Widow is a tribute to those professionals who never let go of a story, or a case, however cold.
The Widow, by Fiona Barton. Bantam £12.99