Where would crime fiction readers and writers be without murder? It is the human act which lies at the heart of countless thrillers, police procedurals, serial killer investigations and tales of revenge. Someone more erudite than I will know when the first murder mystery was published, but I suspect it was Poe’s 1841 The Murders In The Rue Morgue. There are not as many actual murders in the Sherlock Holmes stories as one might imagine, and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that corpses became de rigeur in crime novels. Since then,murder has taken may forms in crime novels, from subtle poisoning to vivid and visceral butchery, but I can’t recall a novel which has dealt with the subject of children who kill. In real life that is an infrequently seen phenomenon, so much so that when it does happen the names of the killers tend to live long int he public memory.
Even in harsh socio-political regimes,no-one executes children. So what happens when they have served their time?Here in Britain, we know that they are eventually released, given new identities and plausible fictitious back-stories, and closely monitored in the hope that they can rebuild their lives. This balancing act by the judicial system is the central feature in Lesley Kara’s excellent debut novel The Rumour. A lifetime ago, Sally McGowan stabbed little Robbie Harris to death. She was found guilty, detained,but then released into the community and given a new life. A life, Robbie Harris’s distraught family insist, that was denied their little boy.
In the unassuming Essex seaside town of Flinstead (think, maybe, real-life Frinton or Walton-on-the-Naze) Jo Critchley, single mum to Alfie and estate agent’s gofer,lives in her modest two-up, two-down terraced house. She has moved up from London taking a break from Alfie’s dad Michael, and to be – a couple of streets away – near her mum. Jo is not ‘born and bred’ Flinstead, and it is taking her a while to become part of the school gate sorority. Still, she has joined a local book group, and added her name to the baby-sitting circle. One afternoon as she waits among the throng of chattering mums outside Alfie’s school, she overhears someone sharing the startling gossip that child-killer Sally McGowan is hiding in plain sight amid the modest bungalows and shabby boarding houses of Flinstead. In her anxiety to be accepted and to be someone who should be listened to, she shares this rumour with the women at her book club. And thus her nightmare begins.
As the Sally McGowan story grows legs, wings, and then takes flight, Jo is caught up in a febrile swirl of false accusations and journalistic opportunism. Who is Sally McGowan? Is it the woman who owns the hippie artifact shop? Is it the artist who has made a collage portrait of strips of newsprint reporting on the McGowan affair?
Lesley Kara tells most of the story through the eyes of Jo Critchley. The style is direct,conversational and without literary pretension. Kara cleverly misdirects us for two hundred pages or so until she produces a plot twist which turns the narrative on its head. This is a breathtakingly original thriller, set in a humdrum location, but written with style and verve powerful enough to suck in readers, especially those who love Domestic Noir. The Rumour will be on the shelves from 27th December in hardback, but is available now in a digital edition.