Every now and then I enjoy reading a good immersive thriller. Last year it was SJ Watson’s “Second Life” about a woman’s search for her missing sister and her adventures from creating a secret online identity. “The Widow” also taps into the nefarious corners of the internet at some points, but this psychological thriller centres on the case of a missing girl, the deceased man who was suspected of kidnapping her and his long-suffering wife-now-widow. This is Fiona Barton’s debut novel, but she’s had considerable practice writing about cases such as the dramatic one created in this story as she’s an experienced journalist. The story’s primary focus is not Glen Taylor, the primary suspect in a kidnapping case that’s been ongoing for four years, but Jean, the submissive and compliant wife who has stood always stood beside – but more often behind - him. The novel begins at a point when Glen has recently been killed in an accident and now Jean is left on her own with the media wanting her side of the story. What does she really think about her husband? How much does she know about the kidnapping? Is she lying to the police and reporters or is she lying to herself? These questions are explored over the course of this well-paced, suspenseful thriller.
At the beginning of the story I felt impatient with Jean because she’s initially so passive. She shows a wilful ignorance: “There is so much I want to ask, but so much I don't want to know.” While this is frustrating it’s also a true reflection of how some people evade looking at the truth. Without her husband to order her about, she knocks around her empty house until it’s invaded by skilled reporter Kate Waters who cosies up to Jean like a friend but really wants the big scoop. Gradually the extent of Jean’s introverted behaviour becomes more meaningful as her complex reasoning takes shape and she slowly reveals her version of events. The novel moves between 2010 when Jean is interviewed and 2006 when two-year-old Bella Elliot disappears from her single mother’s front garden. An investigation is launched by well-meaning detective inspector Bob Sparkes who becomes obsessed with solving the case. Bella’s mother Dawn launches her own campaign to find her daughter utilizing the media and stirring up public interest. The search eventually leads to Glen who becomes the focus of the case. What’s fascinating is the way his wife Jean gradually emerges from the background as she’s torn between her husband and the people investigating. Both sides try to manipulate her for their own purposes, but when she’s interviewed Jean is finally ready to assert her independence.
The novel really picks up pace half way through when a string of carefully placed clues start adding up, secrets are uncovered and Jean becomes more complex. I found the ending to be as satisfyingly dramatic as a thrilling crime drama. It’s particularly notable how well Barton writes about the methods journalists use to chase sensational stories like a kidnapping and how the media works in tandem with (or sometimes comes into conflict with) police investigations. “The Widow” is an engaging and well-executed thriller.