The Blurb On The Back:
This is a fact: Ryan Summers walked into Three Rivers College and killed twelve women, then himself.
But no one can say why.
The question is one that cries out to be answered – by Ryan’s mother, Moira; by Ishbel, the mother of Abigail, the first victim; and by DI Helen Birch, put in charge of the case on the first day at her new job. But as the tabloids and the media swarm, as the families’ secrets come out, as the world searches for someone to blame … the truth seems to vanish.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
On 14thMay, 20-year-old Ryan Summers, an engineering student at Three Rivers College in Edinburgh, walks onto the campus and starts killing the female students with modified starter pistols. By the time he has finished, 12 young women are dead. Then he turns the gun on himself.
Newly promoted DI Helen Birch is the first senior officer on the scene and is put in charge of the investigation. The media interest following one of Britain’s worst shootings is intense, led by the odious columnist Grant Lockley who will do whatever it takes to secure a story by getting to the families of the victims and who Helen already knows from bitter experience, isn’t above raking through the muck of people’s lives and creating his own damning narrative when it suits him. Lockley especially wants to get his hooks into Moira Summer, the murderer’s mother (a widowed former nurse who the media are sure must have known what Ryan was about to do), and Ishbel and Aidan Hodgekiss (the parents of Ryan’s first victim, Abigail, who was their only child).
As a nation mourns, the media and the victims’ families want to know why Ryan did what he did but as Moira, Helen and Ishbel search for answers, the truth becomes something that’s difficult to find.
Claire Askew’s debut crime novel is a well-observed, melancholy affair revolving around 3 women whose lives are forever changed by a crime played out in the tabloid crucible (which is slightly over-salted but nevertheless rings true) and although there are a couple of strained plot points that I didn’t quite buy, this is a very human book that shows how difficult it is to ever really know why people do awful things.
DI Helen Birch is an interesting detective – slightly stereotypical in the mould of being so married to the job that she doesn’t have a relationship – but I liked the fact that she wants to do the right thing while also making mistakes (which she tries to rectify but sometimes merely compounds). I enjoyed her relationship with Amy Kato, the Family Liaison Officer initially assigned to Moira and I enjoyed her interactions with both Moira, Ishbel and the other victims’ families as they showed her compassion and how that conflicts at times with the needs of her job. I also enjoyed the backstory that Askew gives her, which offers potential for a sequel and hints at potential dark roads ahead for her.
Moira and Ishbel are similarly well-drawn – their grief a mirror image of each other’s and each having to deal with awful revelations about their children. Askew does well at showing their parallel journeys without ever resorting to neon signposting of their shared experience and I particularly enjoyed the relationships each has with their partner – Moira still grieving for Jackie, who died 2 years’ previously but now questioning some aspects of their relationship and Ishbel realising how the tragedy has compounded the cracks that already existed in her marriage to Aidan. That said, I thought it was a shame how Aidan was depicted – he does veer towards caricature at times, a middle-aged, middle-class professional smug in the knowledge that he always knows best. Although I wasn’t surprised by the revelation of an affair, I did wonder at how credible it was that he would bring his mistress to a memorial service for his dead daughter – let alone have her on stage with him because the way the media has already covered his affair, meant that I would have thought he would be worried about the optics of it in terms of further coverage.
Similarly Grant Lockley is shallowly drawn – a despicable low-life journalist who will do anything and hurt anyone to get to the story he wants to write. While I could well believe in some aspects of his behaviour, others (such as the email he writes to Moira to try and convince her to do an interview) simply didn’t ring true (and neither did Moira’s reasons for responding to that). I did enjoy the way Askew winds up his storyline as it was satisfying to see the three women working together but it does have a bit of a soapish quality to it, in part because Lockley is such a cartoon to begin with.
Askew touches on MRA groups and conspiracy theorists within the book in a way that feels horribly authentic, using them to suggest possible motive but without ever relying on them as a way of giving pat answers. In fact I thought the way Askew leaves it open to the reader to come up with their own reasons for Ryan’s actions was very mature – you’re not given a definitive answer but have enough to make up your own minds.
All in all, I thought this was a strong debut and I think that Birch could do well should Askew decide to continue her story into a series. I would certainly be interested to check out a sequel.
ALL THE HIDDEN TRUTHS was released in the United Kingdom on 9th August 2018. Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.