For a debut novel, in fact, for any novel, The Widow by Fiona Barton is a staggering success. It grabs you in the first few pages and just doesn’t let go. In theory it’s the relatively straightforward story of a crime and the ensuing police investigation, albeit dealing with a deeply harrowing subject. A toddler, Bella, has gone missing from her garden during the few minutes she had been left unattended. A media frenzy engulfs the country. In the absence of any immediate breakthroughs, speculation and gossip become the main currency. But slowly, painstakingly, the police begin to piece together shards of evidence which takes them into the dark world of on-line hard-core sex and pedophilia and, finally, a suspect.
Glen Taylor lives with a comfortable rather solitary life his wife Jean. Disappointed that they cannot have children they have created a pleasant life for themselves. Even when Glen loses his job at the bank and becomes a delivery driver their existence changes little. The Jean learns about his “nonsense”.
The story is told through the eyes of the main players each chapter presenting their viewpoint such as The Detective, The Journalist and The Mother. Only The Widow speaks in the first person, as this is, after all, her story. But is her story as straightforward as it seems.
For anyone who has ever been involved in a high profile police case, such as a missing child, will appreciate the authenticity that shines through in The Widow. Life for the police is a mix of frustration, grinding monotony (such as when searching days of tapes from public cameras), procedural imperatives and stress. Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes is a decent man trying to solve a crime that takes over his life.
As a former senior Fleet Street journalist it’s not surprising that Barton draws a realistic relationship between Sparkes and journalist Kate Waters, professional but mutually beneficial. Each understands the other. Each is focused on their own outcomes and the two don’t always run on the same track. Kate is an experienced respected journalist. She knows that people involved in tragedy often want someone to listen to their side of events, and empathy, however genuine, is a useful tool.
The book also conveys well the rabid baying for blood that is one of the more unsavory but frequent public reactions to tragedy. Just as Jean Taylor receives hate mail because she “must have known about her husband”, so Bella’s mum is attacked because she was a “lousy mum for leaving Bella alone.”
Barton builds the tension beautifully. Doubt is often left hanging. Playing with you mind. Niggling away. As the jacket blurb says: “A loving husband or heartless killer … she’d know. Wouldn’t she?” In the same situation, wouldn’t we all?
If Barton hasn’t already done a deal I can’t believe much time will pass before The Widow is turned into a movie, or a TV series. It’s worth it. The Widow by Fiona Barton is published by NAL/Penguin Random House. Read an extract.