Reviewer Wally Wood: Wally is an editor and writer, has published three novels, Getting Oriented:A Novel about Japan, The Girl in the Photo an Death in a Family Business. He obtained his MA in creative writing in 2002 from the City University of New York and has worked with a number of authors as a ghostwriter and collaborator.
With an extensive background in a variety of business subjects, his credits include twenty-one nonfiction books. He spent twenty-five years as a trade magazine reporter and editor and has been a volunteer writing and business teacher in state and federal prisons for more than twenty years. He has finished his fourth novel and has translated a collection of Japanese short stories into English.
Fiona Barton's first novel, The Widow, spent seven weeks on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list, and was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, The Wall Street Journal and Publisher's Weekly. Her second, The Child, did not do quite as well although it too was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR. The Suspect is Barton's third novel and I have a hunch it will be another bestseller and Best Book. It should be.
Barton tells the new story in seventy-two short chapters over 400 pages. Each chapter is labeled with the point-of-view character or the situation—The Reporter, The Mother, The Detective, Bangkok Day 1—and the date of the chapter. It's a way to help the reader follow a story that jumps back and forth in time, from character to character, and from London to Bangkok. I can imagine some readers having trouble with these shifts; I cannot imagine how Barton could have told the story as effectively any other way. Pay attention to the dates.
The inciting incident (or lack of incident) is the silence from 18-year-old Alex O'Connor. She and her friend Rosie have gone to Thailand upon high school graduation for a three-week vacation. Alex has been checking in regularly with her mother via Facebook when the messages abruptly stop even though Alex wants to know her final grades.
Her mother, as might be expected, grows concerned, talks to Rosie's mother who's heard nothing, and calls to the police. After only a day, the police are not much help. However, the detective tips off the reporter, Kate Waters, (they know each other from an earlier book) and Kate sets off to find out what's happened to the girls. She has special interest in the story because her own son, a college dropout, is in Thailand.
Barton spent thirty-five years as a newspaper report in the UK, working for major newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. With that background, her chapters on following the story—interviewing distraught parents, consulting with the paper's Bangkok stringer, dealing with other reporters—ring absolutely true.
Unlike many mysteries, The Suspect could almost pass itself off a true crime account; it rings that true. Kate, the reporter, tells her chapters in the first person, present tense. The other chapters are all in third person, past tense if only because they provide information that Kate cannot know but that the reader needs to know for the effect of the story.
And while the mystery is convincingly complex, what sets The Suspect apart from many novels is the emotional truth of Barton is able to convey: A mother's fear for her child half a world away. A reporter's discomfort when she becomes the story. A detective's impatience with foreign police procedure. A teenager's shock at discovering a friend is not the girl she thought she was. And more. And more.
As a result, while the characters must deal with the challenge of the silent girls among others they must also deal with their own fears, angers, wants and desires. It makes The Suspect an engaging and satisfying novel. As I said at the beginning, I think it should be a best seller. And I would not be surprised to see it turned into one of the six-episode mini-series' that the BBC does so well. Meanwhile, I'm going to look up The Widow.