Set in the town of Windermere in Daly’s beloved Lake District, the latest book to feature Detective Sergeant Joanne Aspinall is rich in statements of isolation and crime as well as the clockwork grind of daily life from the perspective of Noel Bloom, a local GP who finds himself trying to get ahead while his family “comes unstuck.” From the benign to a grisly murder, the inventive and wry The Trophy Child channels the raw emotion in which Noel is forced to carry the weight of his dysfunctional domestic life.
Ten-year-old Bronte is a music prodigy, but she’s being pushed far too hard by Noel’s second wife, the increasingly fanatical Karen. Noel has tried not to interfere with Karen’s parenting methods even
though, over the months, Bronte has begun to tire. Karen refuses to acknowledge the signs, proudly wearing the mantel of “tiger mother.” Karen sees it as her responsibility and duty to prepare Bronte for the world ahead of her because “life is a competition.” Accelerating the physical demands of Bronte’s music lessons, Karen’s relationship with her daughter contrasts with her attitude toward her son.
The lazy and disrespectful Ewan, who seems intent to waste his days away, endlessly smokes dope with his best friend, Dale, in his bedroom above the garage.
The larger story arc is that of Verity, Noel’s teenage daughter from his first marriage. So that she can continue her studies, put-upon Verity is subjected to weekly drug tests as part of the deal Noel struck with school authorities. Verity isn’t into drugs; in fact, she’s never been into drugs.
THatt doesn’t seem to matter to Karen, who resents Verity after Verity tried to strangle her. For Noel, this is when things changed, when he
first noticed how Karen was so “achievement obsessed.”
As Noel, Verity and Ewan, and Bronte try escape from “the full force of Karen as best they can,” Verity seeks solace with visits to her mother, Jennifer who was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is now institutionalized in a nearby care facility. On one visit, Verity takes Bronte with her.
When Bronte disappears, the Blooms are thrown into chaos. Karen blames Verity, screaming that she abandoned Bronte, while Verity has no clue what really happened. Noel’s conflicted inner feelings are put to the test with the arrival of Karen’s parents, Bruce and Mary. A “facts man,” Bruce alleges that Verity deliberately harmed her stepsister. Noel is blindsided by the arrival of Joanne Aspinall, the detective assigned to lead the investigation into Bronte’s disappearance.
It doesn’t take long for tongues to start wagging. A website in honor of Karen, entitled “bitch mother,” features Karen’s moment of madness during which she angrily declares that the Blooms are not a “council estate case.” Karen grows more anxious, the whole affair of Bronte’s disappearance perpetuating her fear that her life as a loveless mother will end in flames. While Verity is shaken after Bruce’s allegations (“I think she’s answered pretty clearly if she knew you weren’t accusing her of harming her sister”), Noel descends into a silent funk, unprepared for
the blunt judgment of his self-worth by Bruce. Unable to keep his family from fracturing, Noel looks towards Joanne and recognizes that she, too, is probably “starved of touch.” Noel knows that most women don’t want a “twice-married heavy drinker” responsible for three kids and an ex-wife in permanent care.
Noel struggles throughout with preventing his kids from buckling under pressure as well as the promises that he will never measure Karen against his “inbred bog-trotter of an ex-wife.” Daly inserts humorous depictions of Karen’s rage as she becomes lost in a void pretty much of her own making. There’s also much angst and gnashing of collective teeth over Joanne and Noel’s
mutual attraction. After a major character is killed, Joanne becomes desperate for connections, visiting her old colleague Pete McAleese, who tells her to “go back to the girl who went missing.” Ever the astute detective, Joanne has to figure out what is related to what and find connections where there are none: “to see things other people don’t see.”
Moving from Bronte’s inexplicable disappearance to the violent murder that pits Noel against belligerent Bruce, Daly’s edgy, clever and sardonic mystery reminds us that in the Blooms’ world of pinched recrimination, embarrassed repression, and searing tragedy, love and family loyalty can rise above the machinations of an unstable mother intolerant of failure.