Chris Whitaker's debut novel TALL OAKS garnered a lot of positive publicity and a CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger award. Haven't had a chance to read the first novel yet, but when ALL THE WICKED GIRLS arrived it bounced to the top of the pile based on reputation and expectation alone.
Whitaker is an Englishman, but ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is set in the Alabama of many movies and American mythology. A depressed place, populated by struggling families, dirt poor but tight, close, loving and caring. Deeply religious, these are the sorts of people you feel would be wheeled out when you want to explain "salt of the earth".
When fifteen-year-old Summer Ryan packs a bag, leaves a note saying "I'm sorry", and disappears, the biggest surprise seems to be that it's the "good girl" who has gone. Her twin Raine is the one most likely to get into trouble. Not Summer, the music prodigy, the model student, the golden girl (obviously there's deliberation in the choice of names for these characters). Raine, fortunately, is exactly the sort of person that isn't going to let something like Summer's disappearance roll into yet another mystery. She's the one who is prepared to ask the question their parents, the town and the local Police Chief are trying to avoid - is "the Bird" back? This unknown perpetrator was assumed responsible for the abduction of five young girls in a neighbouring county, but everybody had hoped he was dead or gone. Everybody also assumes the girls are dead - although no sign of them has ever been found.
Symbolism is writ large in ALL THE WICKED GIRLS. From the Summer and Raine names of the twins, through to a town called Grace, which is anything but, and the massive storm that is brewing - meteorological and psychological. Combined with references to good and evil, and the twins aligned with the different sides, God, the Devil and the Church, and the darkness of the atmospherics matches the overwhelming message being delivered. The narrative is supported by the sense of a very odd place, populated by some very odd people, including the morally ambiguous, looming presence of the local Pastor. The idea that Raine's obsession with her sister's disappearance, supported by some of the classic outsiders in the community like this, eventually putting pressure on a dispirited, almost lackadaisical Police Chief does make sense, as does the stirring of the twin's father and his redneck mates.
The narrative switches viewpoint between Summer's voice in the lead up to her disappearance, and the third person telling of the story of Raine and her fellow seekers - Noah (hero cop's son), Purv (son of a local construction worker, victim of shocking violence from his father) and Police Chief Black as he finds his cop's instinct and drive again. Grace, is, it turns out, a town steeped in religious fervour, and not short of possible suspects in Summer's disappearance, and that of the five earlier possible victims.
The sense of this place, the culture and the society in which the action takes place is palpable, uncomfortable and overwhelming. The characters all turn out to have hidden depths and secrets, and it often feels like the whole place is operating on lies. It's deep, dark and beautifully written, with not a hint of an outsider author. The message is, like the atmospherics, on the heavy side - part noir / part morality play, and because of that there's no way you could call this entertaining reading. ALL THE WICKED GIRLS is, however, extremely involving reading, requiring commitment on the part of the reader to empathise and eventually understand that not everything here is what it seems.