Now and again a novel comes along that simply revitalises and sizzles those almost dormant reading synapses with major excitement. The Wicked Girls is just such a book. It’s been quite a while since I read something quite so compelling; I really did not want to put this one down. So here’s a warning: if you start The Wicked Girls, make sure you allow enough time for a one-read sitting. It’s a clever novel and it’s a pretty well-packed novel.
In 1986 two eleven year old girls were imprisoned for the murder of a four year old girl. They came from different backgrounds and were not great friends; they had only really met on that fateful day. Rehabilitated separately, they were finally released on licence with new identities and able to start new lives.
In the present day, the south coast’s seaside town of Whitmouth is experiencing a series of attacks on young women and journalist Kirsty Lindsay arrives to report on the cases and developments. There, she meets cleaner Amber Gordon. It is the first time the two have laid eyes on each other in twenty five years. Danger comes not only from the attacks in their midst but also from the fact they are now thrown together in circumstances where they should not be in contact. They both have their identities and new families to protect. What lengths will they go to in order to protect the lives they live now?
The case that throws these two together is not the main thrust of the novel. The powerful driving force comes from the tension arising over the fact they are in contact and how they deal with it, and in learning about the pair and understanding them. The Wicked Girls expertly plays with perception as we feel the tension of their ‘now’ and gradually discover, in a separate narrative strand, what happened on the day in question, twenty five years ago.
Like Amanda Craig’s Hearts and Minds, The Wicked Girls also serves up a strong and accurate description of our contemporary times. We are in a recession. We live in a multicultural society. Prejudice is never far away. Our news is delivered by a manipulative media. In the case of the latter, Alex Marwood writes with a sophisticated finesse – the author is a journalist and is obviously not afraid to draw on her experience for a very authentic portrayal here.
Minor characters are both well-drawn and colourful, and some we can love very much, very easily. Where others less-appreciated may be on the road to cliché and caricature, their dialogue is so vapid and real and arriving with such a slap that we want to punch them. We all know such prejudiced people exist. Unfortunately, we may also know some of this type. Have we, on times, fallen into this trap ourselves? We know what’s out there and Marwood provides a chronicle of our times in The Wicked Girls.
Where I said at the start that this is a pretty well-packed novel, it may in fact push to bursting at the seams. The solution for the attacks on the young women may hold little surprise to seasoned readers, with a dénouement of explanation that feels a little like milking the crime fiction cow. However, this is but one grain of sand in a bucketful. The Wicked Girls is a powerful and compelling read, and often an uncomfortable read. It looks at the aftermath of a crime, is responsible crime fiction (not gratuitously sensational), and is also thought-provoking, raising many questions. Can those that cross the line into crime ever really escape? Are those innocent but associated with criminals clean of slate? Is justice really just? Can we ever forgive?
The author has previous novels within her resumé, but this is her crime fiction debut. Make it your summer read as it’s stunning and the klaxon that cries out that this is the author to watch in 2012. On the basis of The Wicked Girls we will be reading much more from Marwood in the future. A superb crime fiction debut.