“The Widow,” by Fiona Barton
The crime fiction market these days is being flooded, astonished and forever changed by first-time novelists. When reading these days largely means looking at pictures or is meted out like washing instructions in segments of 140 characters or confined on tiny backlit screens, publishers are risking their survival by choosing between Scylla and Charybdis to introduce new authors with outsized novels and often in pricey clothbound covers.
Soldiering on into the fate of what seemed nearly certain extinction a decade ago, publishers and indy bookstores are in the midst of recovering from a signed death certificate and showing health and growth and affecting great embarrassment to the economists who arrogantly performed gravesite benedictions and have unabashedly moved on to interpret political polling to the same effect.
Leading the pack this month in what’s sure to be a race to the top of the charts is “The Widow,” the debut novel by award-wining veteran British journalist Fiona Barton. Attracting a number of prerelease comparisons to “Gone Girl” and “Girl on the Train” – both discovered and reviewed in Murder Ink – “The Widow” indeed has that claustrophobic, inevitable doom evinced on every page by the now familiar unreliable narrator.
The widow, Jean Taylor, is the pathetically dutiful wife of a domineering misanthrope who we come to suspect is a psychopath after (maybe) being seen near the disappearance of 2-year-old Bella Elliott from her front yard in a suburb of London. A good deal of disconnected and circumstantial evidence points to Glen Taylor as the kidnapper, but Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes can’t quite make it stick even though he forces a square peg into a round hole and arrests his one suspect only to be given a disciplinary leave of absence when a judge humiliates him with a dismissal of charges.
“The Widow” is a story told by four characters: Detective Inspector Sparkes, an honorable and dedicated detective; Kate Waters, manipulative reporter for the London Post; Dawn Elliott, tenacious mother of Bella; and Jean Taylor, suspect Glen Taylor’s wife. The plot cleverly weaves between these actors and from the date of the crime in 2006 and the enormous, ongoing police investigation and press coverage with sensational newspaper sales culminating in 2010 when Glen is struck and killed by a transit bus as he and Jean are walking down a city street.
The book opens with Glen’s death, so we know right away that there will never be a conviction even if convincing evidence can be found. But the press continues to stoke the pyre to inflame a febrile populous, and our attention intuitively turns to Jean. Jean, we learn from the start, wants a child that Glen has deprived her of, and collects photos of children, including Bella, and keeps scrapbooks hidden behind the water tank in the bathroom.
Tension builds as Jean is hectored by Kate and dozens of reporters and cameramen and headlines and newscasts. Who took Bella? Where is Bella? Bella’s mother, Dawn, has driven a steady, frenzied campaign for four years nonstop, with volunteers and donations and fiery condemnation of police procedure. And Jean, unflappable throughout, finally gives up the interview she’s cached away, leaving the hysterical crowd coughing in its own dust as she walks under Glen’s shadow into the lurid focus of infamy.
This is a good book that can hold a place alongside “Gone Girl” and “Girl on the Train” if its rather flaccid ending is overlooked, and I’m happy and I think you’ll be willing to forgive a lazy eye on this stunning face.
And with this review comes the end of Murder Ink in the Durango Herald. Thanks for your loyal audience; it’s been a great treat to receive your emails and book club invitations and impromptu conversations.
[email protected] Jeff Mannix is a local journalist and author.