Simply one of the best British literary thrillers I’ve read in recent years, Barton’s novel transforms what is essentially a story about a missing girl from Southampton into a reflection on the complexities of a murder investigation and the issues surrounding child pornography from the media’s perspective. Beginning in 2010 and moving back to events
in 2007, when sweet little Bella Elliott was snatched one afternoon from the garden outside of her house, the story initially focuses on the aftermath of
the death of Glen Taylor, the man originally blamed for the kidnapping.
Kate Waters, a journalist from the
Daily Post, tells Jean Taylor that she’ll sort everything out as long as Jean can finally confide in Kate the truth about
her husband and whether he was in fact culpable in Bella’s disappearance. Glen died a week ago, knocked down by a bus just outside of Sainsbury’s. In a case that for years has obsessed the police and the public alike, Jean is perhaps just thankful to see her husband finally gone. Originally a hairdresser from Greenwich, Jean tells Kate the story of her marriage and her life with Glen: how he worked at a bank and wore nice suits, was a bit older and “so different and protective.”
The last couple of years have clearly taken their toll on Jean. From the bits and pieces of her childhood to her early married life, Kate writes it all down in a funny, frantic scrawl while Jean begins to once again feel the hysteria of the case and its accompanying publicity. There’s a vital sense of urgency to the interview; Jean’s rambling answers only reinforce the notion of a woman who has long accepted the reality of her situation: that she’s the wife of a possible child murderer. “They say it was Glen who took her and killed her. The police said it first and others later.”
Jean, “the widow everyone wants to interview,” takes Kate down a well-trodden path
and once more into the orbit of Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes, who originally worked with Kate on the Bella case back in 2007. When Bob calls Kate about a number of new leads, the conversation becomes a catalyst for the lack of progress in the original investigation. Although Sparkes and his team examined every detail of Glen Taylor’s life
and the lives of the other suspects--Mike Doonan and Lee Chambers--the case was ultimately sabotaged by botched forensic guesswork and
a series of unreliable witnesses, though Sparkes tried his best to make sure that the investigation was done “by the book.”
The pain of Bella’s unsolved case is a raw wound in Sparkes' consciousness,
made all the more acute by the fact that he just can’t let go of his first
instinct that they’d already found their man. Sparkes admits now that he was driven by the fear that, unless they stopped him, Taylor would go looking for another Bella. From the constant pleadings of Bella’s mother, Dawn Elliott, and her carefully calibrated campaign to make money on the back of her little girl, to a neighbor’s reported sighting of Glen Taylor’s blue van, to his predatory nature in online chatroom outings, Sparkes, Kate, and the new officer assigned to the case, Detective Sergeant Zara Salmond, secretly begin to rebuild the investigation from October 2, 2006--from the moments that little Bella awoke.
Striking a rich balance between the kidnapping mystery, the unfolding courtroom drama where Taylor is first convicted,
to the intimate domestic details of Jean Taylor and Dawn Elliott, Barton charts the complex emotional connections
among her characters: The Widow, The Reporter, The Detective, The Mother, and
finally The Husband. With the new fragments of Glen’s past unceremoniously
dangling before her, Kate is convinced that Jean knows more than she’s letting on.
She is a woman who up until now has refused to pass judgment on the secret sexual desires of her husband. For Kate, however, it’s just the story, journalism at its most powerful, a cruel, unmerciful media that only wants “to hammer home the message with a mallet,” inciting a reaction.
Although the reveal came a little early, Jean’s final revelation left me riveted like a violent traffic accident, unable to tear my eyes away.
The image of Bella is ever-present, her small, confident face to be retrieved at will, the center of dark fantasies that continue to frighten and thrill in equal measure, fantasies that ultimately showcase the grimmer, depraved side
of human behavior at its most shadowy and despairing.