Source: Review copy
Publication: 19th March 2020 in paperback from Zaffre
What if the people you trust are the ones you should fear most?
We all recognise them: those who send prickles up the back of our necks. The charmers, the liars, the manipulators. Those who have the potential to go that one step too far. And then take another step.
Each week Jessamine Gooch broadcasts a radio show about convicted killers. But when she is approached for help in solving a current case, around a troubled missing woman, she fails to realise there is a dark figure closer to home, one that threatens the safety of her own family . . .
Shamefully, I have had this book on my TBR pile for a long time. That’s because I did not realise how close to home it was going to hit and I stopped reading it for quite a while. Unlike Deborah O’Connor, I have worked for the BBC and while this review isn’t about me, you need to know that my response has been conditioned by some of the close parallels between real life and this book.
The central protagonist Jessie Gooch is a 50 something single mother and radio presenter whose programme has been running for years, investigating the background of what she calls PDP, or potentially dangerous people. What that means is that she takes criminal cases and together with an ex-policeman and a psychologist, analyses people who have been dangerous and suggesting ways in which they could have been marked as dangerous and perhaps stopped before they committed their crimes. Jessie also volunteers for a Domestic Violence hotline, so her world is full of the worst of humanity.
As you may imagine, this is a dark book and the focus on child exploitation, abuse and grooming is not a subject everyone will be comfortable with. The atmosphere is dark and oppressive and this is not a book for the faint hearted.
Leaving Broadcasting House after her programme one day, Jessie is stopped by Marnie Clark. Marnie wants Jessie to look into the disappearance of her friend, Cassie Scolari, whose husband, she knew, was abusive.
Jitesh is working as an intern at the BBC, training to be a sound engineer. Academically bright and intending to take up a place at Cambridge he is using his job to scope out opportunities at the BBC. Jitesh is an accomplished hacker, and Jessie ropes him in to helping her look into Cassie’s disappearance.
O’Connor utilises a dual timeline approach to good effect as we follow 13 year old Rowena Garbutt whose care home fails to stop her from taking up with an older man, Sunny, who she thinks loves and who exploits her mercilessly.
The narrative flows back and forwards as Jessie investigates Cassie’s disappearance, uncovering devastating information and putting her own life in jeopardy. Utilising multiple voices, each chapter is told in the present through Jessamine, her adopted daughter Sarah and Jitesh or via Rowena in early 2000. The flashback chapters are the most difficult to read.
Though the subject matter is very dark indeed, this is not a graphic book but O’Connor manages to create a very real atmosphere of fear where the young women in this book are faced with the most awful things that they never anticipated.
Anyone who has followed some of the more recent cases of child exploitation will recognise the inherent truth in O’Connor’s writing and I found some of it too close to home for comfort, which may be the point.
Verdict: Though there were some moments where coincidence or a bit of odd behaviour left me questioning, overall this is a gripping and compelling read for those who like their subject matter on the dark side. I’m off to look at photos of kittens and puppies.
Deborah O’Connor is a writer and TV producer. Born and bred in the North-East of England, in 2010 she completed the Faber Academy novel writing course. She lives in London with her husband and daughter. She has not worked at the BBC.