Three British couples are on holiday in Saratoga, Florida. They’re cynical, bourgeois, and not terribly nice, but they’re also strangely sophisticated. Now they’re back in England, attempting to reconvene at a series of dinner parties even though their intent is to slander each other with petty judgments every chance they can get. Angie and Barry are the first to host. Angie in particular is keen to present a holiday-style menu and cook something Floridian
at a gathering fashioned to reflect their recent trip: “it’s just a get-together, that’s all. Sort of an add-on to the holiday kind of thing.”
Barry, the most truculent of the group, gets on all right with Ed and Dave, and he always likes to perv at Dave’s wife, Marina, because he’s “a sucker for big tits and an over-the-top dye job.” Lately Barry
has been too busy to bother with intimacy. He's more concerned with getting back at his “bastard” brother, who seems to want to usurp him every chance he can get. Barry is perhaps the most obvious suspect in a murder mystery that will gradually fan out to include handsome Ed, who works as a sales representative for a medium-sized publisher of academic books. Ed’s wife, Sue--a teacher--has been married to him for
23 years. Ed is extremely good-looking, a macho-man who defines himself in terms of his “pulling prowess,” and his attractiveness toward women.
Moving between the disappearance of Amber-Marie, a teenage girl with learning difficulties,
and the couples’ three dinner parties, Billingham deconstructs the fortnight holiday. In Florida, the couples laze around the pool of the Pelican Palms. Dave, Ed, and Barry watch as the girl reaches into her plastic bag. Ed swims lengths while Barry walks slowly along the edge of the pool. The girl’s mother smokes American
Spirit cigarettes. Everything seems perfectly fine, until Amber Marie walks out of the Resort. Her final moments are caught on camera. According to Marina, it was freaky “seeing her mother chasing around and panicking while the six of us were just lying there, desperately trying to soak up the last bit of sun before went home.”
In Sarasota, Detective Jeffrey Gardner is determined to find Amber-Marie. He battles through his days with the Crimes Against Persons Unit who think it’s crazy that the girl’s mother is around. Although it’s been six weeks, the truth is that nobody’s paying the case a whole lot of attention. From every whisper and strangled sob, Gardner fights through the experience of a mother grappling with an impossible loss. Meanwhile, Trainee Detective Constable Jenny Quinlan of Scotland Yard takes it upon herself to solve
the investigation, contacting Gardner about the specifics of Amber-Marie’s case.
After another young girl’s death, this time near where everyone lives, Jenny begins to link both victims' mental states to an obsession begun in the early years of a disintegrating marriage.
Billingham shapes his story like the darkest of Shakespearean tragedies, the connection to Florida providing the glue to the narrative and the unfolding transatlantic investigation between Gardner and Jenny. To Jenny, Gardner is the sort of man she can trust, someone who can make sure the work she gets done on the case is acknowledged properly. Weighed down by her fantasies, Jenny romantically daydreams over the American
detective as she aggressively drops into the lives of Angie and Barry, Dave and Marina, and Ed and Sue (some of the best scenes involve Jenny questioning the suspects). From
those interviews to the lives of two trusting teenage victims, Jenny’s challenge is
to cut through the suspects’ anger and their constant propensity to lie.
Murder aside, the real pleasure of the novel comes from Billingham’s skill for exploring human weakness in all its forms while exposing the sardonic actions of his suspects. Flawed and victimized, all have their tender spots. Barry has a temper and is clearly capable of snapping without much provocation. Ed is
an obvious womanizer and a sleazebag, and Dave is just “downright creepy.” Things come to a terrible climax at Dave and Marina’s final dinner party, where all the couples realize that they should probably have left each other well enough alone.
Steering toward a sudden, unpredictable twist that most readers won’t see
coming, Billingham writes a unique tale of unlikable characters and of a wickedly dark sociopath whose occasional blinding insights periodically pepper the
tale, like a confession of sorts that could only have come from the fires of hell. The book grabbed me from the outset, and Billingham’s take-no-prisoners style is well-suited to this quietly simmering, clever stand-alone type of novel.