Barton's works are highly readable, combining the old-fashioned thriller with a sort of unfussy cinematic drama. Her latest, The Suspect, has emotional intensity unusual for the genre. Tragic events have lingering effects on the characters. Primarily told in the first-person by reporter Kate Waters (the same character from Barton's previous novels), the focus is an adventure in Bangkok where young, naive Alex O'Connor is finally able realize her dream of international travel.
The dream holiday is anything but when Alex finds herself ensconced at the Green Paradise guesthouse, run by the shady Mama. She clashes with her traveling companion,Rosie, who spends much of her time drinking and sleeping with boys: "This isn't why I came to Thailand. She's ruining everything. I could kill her." Unhappy and homesick, Alex realizes that she should never have invited the other girl. Alex doesn't talk about it to anyone but her best friend, Mags, who is back in the UK. She could tell her parents the truth, but she doesn't want to worry them. Instead, she turns to an "English lad" who calls himself JW and sort of adopts. her He says she can call him Jamie, but only when they're on their own.
Jamie is a pivotal character, but so is Kate's son, Jake, who is away on Phuket for two years and is supposed to be having a brilliant time "laying around in the sun." Jake's emails are short and to the point, "more a telegram than a letter" telling Kate that he's alive. Kate gets word from Alex's parents, Lesley and Malcolm, that Alex also hasn't been in touch. Jenny, Rosie's mother, wants to know what's going on. The last Jenny heard from the girls was the selfie Alex sent of herself and Rosie grinning madly on a tuk-tuk on the day they arrived, their surroundings a blur. After contacting the police and the British Embassy in Bangkok, Kate turns to old mate DI Bob Sparkes. Together with DS Zara Salmond, Bob and Kate embark on a dangerous path that takes them through a full complement of familiar types--feckless Thai cops, the immoral Mama (who the Sparkes suspects is dealing drugs out of the Green Paradise), two partying Dutch boys, and a down-on-his-luck Jake. The media have a field day, splashing the missing girls across the Internet while an increasingly erratic Jenny Shaw rants about the lies and missed evidence in what she thinks is a dodgy investigation.
Barton winds her tale forcefully around the missing girls, drifting Jake and Machiavellian Jamie. With Kate and Bob both set loose in Bangkok, Barton vividly translates the extraordinary look of the city. The vague investigation over what happened to the girls is bolstered by the money left in Rosie's grandmother's account. Could this be connected with Rosie's disappearance? Mags tells Kate about Alex's emails to her detailing the sex and drugs. According to the emails, Rosie and Alex were arguing over Jake. Sometimes three a day, the emails catalogued the growing tension between the two girls--fights, silences, anger and theft. Back in the UK, newspapers splash an exclusive interview with Rosie's father, who accuses Jenny Shaw of being a difficult, prickly woman who hates her ex-husband.
Though the novel is far too long, Barton challenges us to understand Rosie and Alex's initial enmity and petty jealousies as well as Jake's deep desire not to become trapped in the shadow of his mother. The setting is exotic, the plot mostly compelling as it twists with each new revelation, especially the sudden reveal that Jamie is being held in custody in Bangkok. Kate must test the statements at the core of Jake's story, pushing at the details that prop them up then "probing them like a bad tooth, looking for the weak point."
I liked the novel, but what could have been a nuanced plot-line about how a Westerner (Jake) perverts the practical stoicism of the Thai people into an amoral attempt to save face comes across as a bit empty. It all ends up feeling convoluted and flat, other than to set up the sudden twist in which we finally learn the real reason behind Alex and Rosie's vanishing.