The greatest strength of Cathi Unsworth's crime writing to date has derived from her ability to evoke a specific time and place with an intense and visceral skill. Weirdo, her fourth novel, is her finest work yet in that respect, and the fact that it is attached to the most deft and intricate piece of plotting of her career makes it an outstanding addition to the British crime-writing scene.
The action is set in the fictional Norfolk seaside resort of Ernemouth, and the story switches between events in the early 1980s and 2003. In the latter timeline, a former cop turned private detective, Sean Ward, is hired to look into a brutal murder that occurred two decades previously.
Corrine Woodrow, then a 15-year-old schoolgirl, was found guilty of the brutal murder of a classmate and has spent 20 years behind bars, but a recent reopening of the case has thrown up new DNA evidence suggesting that someone else was at least present at the crime scene, if not further implicated.
So throughout Weirdo we get a clever and intricate dovetailing of Ward's investigation into the murder with the events at the time leading up to it. It has to be said that the feel, smell and sound of 1980s Norfolk come pinging off the page here. Unsworth's ability to render the period so vividly makes for an immersive reading experience, and there can scarcely be a better writer of this sort of stuff in the land.
By comparison, the passages set in 2003 are slightly less compelling and slightly more familiar, hanging as they do from a more standard kind of private investigator plotline, albeit one that is still subtly nuanced and carefully wrought.
Ward slowly uncovers a truly bewildering amount of corruption, crime, scandal and cover-ups, but it's to Unsworth's credit that, although the plot takes some horrific twists and turns, none of the big reveals feel as though they come out of nowhere. This is a properly embedded crime plot. And for all Ward's revelations, the real page-turning quality here lies in the relationships between the characters in the 1980s.
Corrine and her friends Debbie and the new girl Sam, the boys they variously hang out with, Corrine and Sam's wayward mothers and the various sets of grandparents in positions of authority across the town – all of them are believable and have depth, and their relationships are complex in the way that real relationships are.
This depth and complexity is most evident in the central relationship of Weirdo, the one between the teenage girls. Corinne, Sam and Debbie play out a vicious power struggle, and the psychology of that hormone-hammered adolescence that girls go through can rarely have been so well evoked. There is immense danger constantly lurking for such girls, even in the most benign-seeming places, and the terror of that everyday jeopardy bleeds across every page of this intense novel.