If you've ever bemoaned the tendency of the publishing industry to leap on bandwagons just as they're bowling out of town, or yawned over serial formulas and longed for more complex plots with more compelling characters and more compassion damn it, from the author, then stand by your beds. Alex Marwood has delivered a book that packs a genuinely surprising punch.
One fateful summer morning in 1986, two eleven-year-old girls meet for the first time and by the end of the day are charged with murder. Twenty-five years later, journalist Kirsty Lindsay is reporting on a series of sickening attacks on young female tourists in a seaside town when her investigation leads her to interview funfair cleaner Amber Gordon. For Kirsty and Amber, it's the first time they've seen each other since that dark day when they were just children. But with new lives - and families - to protect, will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?
This blurb, for a cracking first crime novel, hardly does justice to the content, which is political, unsettling and multi-layered. The girls of the title are glimpsed at intervals, barely recognisable now as Amber and Kirsty, the grown women at the centre of the story. On the flip of a judicial coin, the eleven year olds are sent to very different juvenile detention units. One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is recognising how their experiences altered them, and what (if anything) remains of the children they once were.
This is a crime novel in which the crime takes a backseat to the characters. That won't satifsy every reader. But if I tell you that the concept of crime is explored here - what part society plays, the price of forgiveness, the tenuous mercy of the tabloid press through whose lens the majority of us experience and judge crimes - you'll know to expect a richly rewarding read.
Marwood, herself a journalist, writes with authority: clear, fearless prose that refuses to march to the tune of so much commercial crime fiction. She won't deliver us to a point of reassurance, nor will she sugar the pill of ambiguity, which for me is the best reason to love this book, the ending of which is perfectly - painfully - suspended for our judgement, and our mercy.
If all that makes this sound like heavy work for a reader, it's not. The story rattles at a great pace, peopled by likeable and unlikeable characters, dollops of plot twists and surprises along the way. But there are lots of great plotters out there. What's rare is to find a writer that makes us really think and ask questions, of ourselves and our society. This story will disturb your sleep, not because of the monsters it introduces to us, but because of the monsters we already know.
The Wicked Girls. £6.99. Sphere 2012.