It's not unusual for a "much anticipated" thriller to come along boasting of its own brilliance, with quick-sell words like "gripping" slashed across its cover. Only very rarely do these words ring true, but within the first few pages, it is clear Fiona Burton's debut The Widow is deserving of its accolades.
The Widow is a crime thriller at its heart, but unlike many from its genre, you'll find no silly hysteria or mutilated bodies thrown across these pages. Alternating between the narratives of "the reporter", "the mother", "the detective" and "the widow", this is a chilling, psychologically twisting tale about a missing child and the events leading up to her abduction.
At the centre of the story is Jean Taylor, widow of Glen, who was suspected but never convicted of snatching two-year-old Bella. On first appearances, "Jeanie" is the voiceless, doting wife who admits to just letting things happen to her. Having spent years happily watching her husband dictate their day to day plans, Jean knows too well that home life is "Nobody's business but ours," as Glen so frequently puts it. That is, until Glen is killed in an accident and Jean is suddenly faced with the daunting – or is it liberating? – prospect of speaking out to the press, to the police and to the reader. Hounded by news reporters pressuring her to sell her story, Jean's controlled exterior begins to crumble, and as the narrative progresses we are left questioning her reliability. Does Jean know more about her husband than she is letting on? Was Glen even guilty?
With so many twists and the occasional red herring, the result is not completely surprising but the story manages to be both realistic and consistent in its tension. Believable insights into the world of child pornography make the story shocking but important, and Barton's experience as a journalist means the plotlines are watertight and her characters worthy of investing in.
But what takes this novel from good to brilliant has to be Barton's uncanny female perspective. Detective Bob Sparkes is likeable but that's easy enough – he's the good cop fighting for justice with the support of thousands of public rubberneckers. It's the crafty intelligence and empathy seen in reporter Kate, as she battles to do her job as a writer without breaking any morals, and the complicated emotional layers to Jean, conflicted with bereavement and relief at her husband's death, that make for strong female leads so rarely seen in crime dramas. The Widow is feminist, weighty and scarily plausible. It will haunt you...
Bantam Press £12.99. Order for £10.99 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
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