All the Wicked Girls
Zaffre, 24 August 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.
All the Wicked Girls is described as a crime novel, and it certainly features crimes - many crimes, in fact, over and above the disappearances of young women that are the focus of the story - but it's much more than that. Indeed, the crimes(s) are perhaps more of a backdrop, a way into a wounded community and a way of understanding a cast of wounded people.
The young men, Noah and Purv, who set out to find Summer Ryan, bear wounds. So does Summer, the latest in a series of young women who have vanished, raising concerns that the mysterious abductor, "The Bird" is active again. (Or did she just run away? And if so, why?)
There is Raine, Summer's sister, who joins with Noah and Purv and, it has to be said, drives much of the search. She's determined, ruthless and, by her own estimation, not a good girl. Yet she is also self-destructive, as is Black, town sheriff of Grace, a wounded man if ever there was one, laden with guilt over the death of a friend.
A local minister, Bobby, and his wife Savannah, who lost their young boy in tragic circumstances.
Samson, an albino man tormented by his father, Bobby's predecessor.
And that's before we even get to Summer's and Raine's wild father Joe, who marches his "boys", rifles held high, onto the town square to pressurise Black; or the odious Ray Bowdoin, or Peach, the sex worker and mother of the first missing woman.
Whitaker conveys the sense of a community on the edge - hollowed out by corrosive market forces, losing jobs, blighted by drink and drugs and now, the final blow, seeing its young women disappear into the aptly named Hell's Gate National Forest. Against this background, his characters seem to struggle like flies on sticky paper. Missing Summer, who voice some of the chapters, is offered the chance of "escape" via her musical talent (her voice certainly comes over as more literate than most of the other narrators) but seems lukewarm about the idea (while clearly deeply committed to her music). I was reminded of the self destructive rage and rebellion in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the way the runner of the title throws the race rather than collude with respectable values.
Black himself, at the centre of the search for Summer, is in despair, resorting to drugs to keep going - and the townsfolk doubt both his commitment and his ability to rescue their daughters. He also has to deal with any number of raging, violent, drunk fathers, resorting to fists and boots to control their sons and daughters: any number of gun wielding men riding into town in their trucks to threaten order: any amount of swindling, bullying and blackmail. All presenting him with a truly bewildering web to unpick if he wants to solve the case.
Such progress as there is seems to come, not surprisingly, from Raine, Noah and Purv - the "adults" in the town being both more interested in locking horns than trying to find Summer and also distracted by the subsidiary rivalries and buried secrets that come to light over the course of the book. But that progress is won at a price. It's a dark and often sad story, portraying a community that seems to have nothing left except its guns and Bibles, and which sees them both as weapons. The position of women in this society is especially grim: a women's health clinic that tries to support is, in effect, declared outside the protection of the law.
The bleakness is though redeemed by the friendship - no, the love - between Noah and Purv ("we're brave and we're fierce!") and, increasingly, Raine. Despite hard, hard lives the two manage to find humour, albeit dark humour, and they look out for one another and, in searching for her sister, for Raine, too.
It's great writing, capturing the voices of the protagonists perfectly and deftly revealing the central mystery - what actually happened to Summer and the others? - only slowly, keeping the reader hooked throughout. Only one element of the story jarred. At the beginning of the book there is a storm coming. That's a bit over portentous, perhaps, but understandable: in the book Bad Things will happen, and a severe storm echoes that. However, the storm doesn't break and instead a dark cloud hovers over Grace for much of the narrative. It only covers Grace - there is a distinct boundary, so much so that one can stick one's arm in or out and see the difference. At one stage a group of searching police go in and out of Grace, passing between light and dark as they do so. The marvel draws sightseers and even TV crews until the storm does, finally, break.
Yet this cloud, which doesn't refer to anything upon which the story depends, only puzzles. Yes, it's an extended metaphor for the state of Grace (sorry, I couldn't resist that) but Whitaker's gritty writing, his empathy with his characters and his lucid dissections of their motives, fears, hopes and dreams, would easily drive the story without it.
But I'd regard that as a minor point, really. This book is magnificent and I'd strongly recommend it. - I'm off now to read Tall Oaks, Whitaker's first book.