Reviewed by Ruth Latta
The Wicked Girls
by Alex Marwood
2013, ISBN 978-0-312386-6. $16 US)
The ideal crime/suspense novel not only takes us through a terrifying experience, but also conveys a perspective on the world. The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood (a pseudonym) is a psychological thriller with social commentary on a par with the best of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine. Marwood’s two main characters, Kirsty Lindsay and Amber Gordon, share a terrible secret. Although their paths diverged after a fateful day in 1986, each lives in terror of being found out and exposed to media frenzy and the loss of everything they hold dear.
Amber, a night cleaning supervisor at the amusement part, Funnland, in the (fictional) resort town of Whitmouth on the English Channel, is cleaning the House of Mirrors, she stumbles over the corpse of a teenage girl. Her first reaction? Fear that her picture will be in the media because she found a body. Meanwhile, Kirsty, supporting an out-of-work husband and two children on her salary as a “stringer” for a London paper, goes to Whitmouth to write about the murder, the third that summer in which a young woman was killed.
Although Amber and Kirsty are introduced near the start of the novel, but Chapter One is presented through Martin, a stalker harassing a woman who cut him off after a one-night stand. He is angry that Whitmouth has become so run-down, with an economy based on drunken visitors on brief holidays. Martin is thoroughly creepy, but his thoughts about the town, combined with Kirsty’s impressions and the scenes of Amber’s flashy, grubby work environment, convey the poverty and sleaziness of Whitmouth. Economic recession has degraded the amusement park workers, who live hard lives that age them prematurely; middle class people thrown out of work, like Kirsty’s husband, Jim; and the drunken revellers hoping that a weekend of excess will improve their drab lives.
The sensationalism of the tabloids further degrades society. Kirsty is low on the journalism food chain and must write what fits her newspaper’s slant: “Her job is to find fifteen hundred words of the sort of Sunday feature that makes readers feel better about their own lives…No town where a killer is on the loose is allowed to be a nice town; it’s an unwritten law.” Later in the novel, when a serial killer is caught, the media whips the public into such a frenzy that a mob pursues his common-law wife after she visits him in jail.
When the Lindsays hold a dinner party, an attempt at networking for Jim, a voluble guest fulminates on crime in general and juvenile offenders in particular:
“The fact is,” he says, “for the good of society as a whole, we should identify the murderous little monsters and lock them up, and do it before they kills someone else’s child. We don’t seem to care about the victim any more. It’s all about the criminal.” He believes criminality is genetic…Where there’s a fat, slattern mother feeding her kids McDonalds and shouting at the school staff, you can guarantee there’s a fat slattern grandmother necking cider and fighting with the neighbours.”
Kirsty finds his comments chilling. She was labelled a “wicked girl” by the media in the mid-1980s, when she and another eleven year old, an acquaintance, were found guilty of abducting and murdering a four year old. The older girls were sent to different juvenile facilities and were ordered never to see each other again. Kirsty has not told Jim about her past.
The meeting of Amber and Kirsty in Whitmouth, is coincidental but Marwood makes it seem completely plausible. She structures her novel for maximum suspense, alternating present day chapters with those set in 1986, and shifting from Amber’s life to Kirsty’s.
Part of the novel’s fascination is the question of whether the “wicked girls” are homicidal adults. In fact, they are both good women. Kirsty is positive and encouraging toward her husband, while supporting the household. Amber is a kindly supervisor who takes pride in her attractive home in a housing development going to seed. She is thankful ever day for the love of the handsome Vic, whose perfection as a spouse is marred only by occasional moody spells. Her friends envy her, and can’t understand what he sees in her. Eventually his reason for being with her is revealed.
Marwood shows the pervasiveness of misogyny not only through the sinister Martin, but also through remarks to the effect that the murdered girls “asked for it”, by drinking and partying. It also comes through when a male dinner guest frowns on Kirsty for being a working mother, and condescends to her about her profession. While The Wicked Girls preaches no sermons, we see that both Amber and Kirsty were abused and neglected, even though they were of different social classes.
SPOILER ALERT: Near the end, in the scene taking us back to the death of the four year old, we learn that the little girl had been parked with the eleven year olds by her elder sister – not abducted. The death appears to have been an accident, compounded by the youthful misjudgment of one of the “wicked girls.”
In the denouement, Kirsty’s husband, Jim, reacts to a news item, by saying, “How are we supposed to argue for the innate goodness of the human spirit, when people like this… How could she?…Some people are just born evil.” Marwood would disagree, as shown by the act of self-sacrifice that forms the climax. She leaves us musing about how to bring about a better society.