Second novel blues? Only the cover!

All the Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker

Former financial trader Chris Whitaker’s first novel Tall Oaks (which I reviewed here) was a confident debut – a tale of small town American life with a great cast of characters surrounding the central mystery of a missing child. It’s been nominated for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Daggers which will be decided soon.

Given that great start, Whitaker’s second novel has a lot to live up to, and I’m happy to report that the only second novel blues are on the cover. Whitaker has produced another top-notch small town American mystery, this time set in Alabama.

Meet the Ryan sisters, Raine and Summer. High school students in Grace, Alabama. Raine is the complete opposite of her sister Summer. A musical prodigy and model student, Summer was loved by everyone, including Raine, who would be considered the naughty one of the pair, smart but sassy, challenging sometimes in her behaviour towards boys. They live at home with their father, their Momma having died. Summer narrates the first chapter, and after telling us about the one exciting incident in recent Grace history, finishes thus:

I’d stop by her grave when I went to church and Momma would always say to me, “Keep clear of boys, Summer. They ain’t got nothin’ to give you but trouble.”
Raine sometimes complains that nothin’ excitin’ is ever gonna happen in Grace again.
Daddy told her careful what you wish for.

Chapter two opens with a shock:

Summer Ryan went missing in the night hours of May 26. Her daddy called his boys before the cops ’cause he reckoned they’d move quicker. And also ’cause Joe Ryan had spent the better years of his life keeping far from law enforcement.

Just a couple of paragraphs later we find out that five girls, all churchgoing,  had previously gone missing in the county. Then the abductions stopped. It is immediately assumed that they’re starting again:

If they caught the guy – newspapers called him the Bird, they’d kill him before calling the cops. It weren’t said but they knew that’s what they’d do.

The set-up is done – we’re only on page nine, but I was hooked already. The search goes on for Summer – but as you might expect, as no trace is found, despondency sets in amongst the adults in the Ryan family. Only Raine seems to be keeping the flame alive. She needs help though, and enlists two classmates, Noah and the unfortunately named Purv, ‘Purv with a u,’ he says. Noah has access to a car, and Raine’s plan is for them to go together to Hells Gate National Forest – the nearby place where the other girls had gone missing – the nearby place that everyone warns their kids away from.

Noah is the good, normal one, but having a thing for Raine, he is easily persuaded to use his Mom’s car for Raine’s investigative purposes. Purv is the wise-cracking, scrawny sidekick. Whitaker captures the dynamics between this unlikely trio perfectly and we all want them to succeed.

Although this trio dominates the story, as he did in Tall Oaks, Whitaker introduces a large ensemble cast around them to paint a picture of a troubled town in which there is a lot going on underneath. Apart from Summer and Raine’s ex-con father and their extended family, the other characters include the policeman, Black, who has taken to the bottle and has a sort-of relationship with Peach, a former prostitute. There is the former firebrand pastor who’s had a stroke and his softer replacement who is living through his own hell of having lost a child and his relationship with his wife faltering. There are many others too, some of whom are easy to suspect like the school janitor who is slow-witted and lives alone – but nothing is straight-forward in this twisty thriller.

Every few chapters, we get another installment of Summer’s narration which gradually takes us up to just before she went missing, and it’s fair to say that Summer had a darker side to her personality.

The mixture of high tension in the town and the searing heat alongside the large cast of characters plus Summer and Raine’s trio made this thriller a real page turner. Despite being British, Whitaker seems to have a real feel for small town American life. I can easily see both his novels on screen, large or small as he also has a strong visual element to his writing.  I’ll be looking out for whatever he does next. One of the best thrillers I’ve read this year. (9/10)

Source: Publisher – thank you.

Chris Whitaker, All the Wicked Girls (Zaffre, Aug 2017), paperback original, 448 pages.

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