Kate Waters was introduced to readers in Fiona Barton’s novel, The Widow (2016) and made her second appearance in The Child (2017). Now she returns in The Suspect and is very much “the story” rather than just a reporter investigating the dark things that happen to other people. Two teenage girls have celebrated the end of their ‘A’ Levels by heading off on the adventure of a lifetime – a back-packing trip to Thailand. When phone calls home and emails suddenly stop, the parents of Alex and Rosie are at first uneasy, but then disquiet turns into blind panic.
Sensing a very productive headline story that will run and run, Kate Waters uses all her empathy and tricks-of-the-trade to get close to the girls’ families, and the story does indeed have the whole enchilda. Beautiful teenage girls, disappearance in a Bangkok drug den, frantic parents, the possibility of incompetence by foreign police – what could possibly go wrong? Jake Waters is what could possibly go wrong. Kate’s son has been away in Thailand “finding himself” after a failed spell at university, and her journalistic glee at the ramifications of the story is brutally brought up short when she finds that her errant boy might be at the very epicentre of the story she has claimed as her own.
The technique of telling a story from several different narratives is hardly new, but few can have handled it better in recent times than Fiona Barton. The events both here in England and further afield unfold through the eyes of Kate Walters herself, the distraught parents, and the local police team lead by DI Bob Sparkes and his DS, Zara Salmond. Inevitably, the perceptions of Kate Walters are more immediate because her narrative is first person. Barton has probably forgotten more about the world of journalism than most crime writers will ever know, and she makes good use of her experience when she describes the gears grinding as Kate switches from mother to reporter and then back to mother again. On her own website, Fiona Barton writes:
“I should say here that Kate Waters is not me. I’ve been where she goes but she is a composite of many Kates I have worked with. She is in her fifties, has juggled career and family, chafing at her hospital consultant husband’s dismissal of her job and the guilt of missing parent evenings and football matches. She is world-weary at times, terrified by the technology changing the media and insecure about her role. But she is still driven by the need to find the story. And she refuses to go until she has nailed it…”
It must be said that this is a story long on personal misery and rather short on redemption, but it is beautifully written. The nuances of conversation, gesture and body language are exquisitely observed even if they sometimes make for painful reading, such as the bittersweet moments between Bob Sparkes and his dying wife. My own children are, thankfully, well past the age of “doing” Thailand, but my advice to those with gap-year offspring is, with all respect to Fiona Barton (right), don’t read this book! Once your teenagers have shouldered their backpacks and waved goodbye at the departure gate, your mind will hark back to The Suspect it will be nessun dorma for you!
The Suspect is a superior blend of psychological thriller and police procedural, and Fiona Barton keeps us guessing until the last page and a half. To be fair she does give us a fairly important clue much earlier in the novel, but – quite correctly in my case – she expects that we will forget about it in all the to-ing and fro-ing between Bangkok, Hampshire and London. The Suspect is published by Bantam Press and will be out on 24th January.