Review published on June 28, 2017.
Chris Whitaker’s debut Tall Oaks received considerable critical acclaim. His off-kilter tale set in small town America seemed an audacious beginning for a British writer yet it worked well due to Whitaker’s skillful characterisations and humour amidst the dark deeds. Whitaker’s character Manny made the novel with his mix of bravado and teenage angst. There’s more of this in his latest book, set in the small town of Grace, Alabama, in 1995.
People in Grace are dominated by their backstories and when church-going teenage girls start going missing old grudges and prejudices come to the surface. The narration is split between events and the words of the missing girl, Summer, the first to be taken from Grace itself. The people of the town implode with the tension as an unmoving grey cloud gathers over their heads. I was reminded of the best of Stephen King in Whitaker’s story-telling and of a 1997 American novel, The Church of Dead Girls, by Stephen Dobyns, which I loved, yet I think Chris’ work is even better and this is once again due to his characterisation. Those missing Manny will warm to wannabe teenage policeman Noah, his sidekick Purv and Summer’s sister Raine, who take the search into their own hands with black humour and laugh out loud moments as well as real poignancy. There is a great bond which develops between these three damaged outsiders. The equally damaged Police Chief Black shows the author is great at adult characters too. The plot is darker than that of Tall Oaks and religion and good and evil have a strong part to play. I marvel at how authentic this British author’s creation of small town America feels, in terms of speech, the environment, their cultural references and lives. The prejudices and obsessions of a small community are so effectively conveyed. It’s a great read.
Tall Oaks showed the potential, but this is the real deal…
Phil Ramage 5/5
All The Wicked Girls by Chris Whitaker
Zaffre 9781785761522 pbk Aug 2017
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