- - Monday, March 2, 2020

Like many English teens, Alex O’Connor plans an adventure between finishing high school and hitting university. Her dream is back-packing round Thailand

Alex had looked forward to this for a year, fantasizing about places, people, adventures, while she stacked shelves and pulled pints to earn the money.”

She not only saves her money to take her there, but also researches the country, and along with her best friend, Mags, carefully plans what to do. 

But it doesn’t work out. The first problem is Mags, who does not stack shelves or pull pints so she can’t afford to go. The next and major problem is Rosie. She goes to Alex’s school, but they have never been particularly close. Still, Alex agrees to her taking Mags’ place because she doesn’t want to travel alone. 

A mistake. Rosie starts by drinking three glasses of wine with her airline lunch and it’s all down from there. She has no desire to see the sights of Bangkok, and is not even very interested in hitting the beaches. Having been held on a tight leash by her divorced mother, she now wants to enjoy all the boys and booze and drugs she can get.  

And she gets a lot. Too much. She dies.

So does Alex, who didn’t do drugs and had eyes for only one guy — Jake the barman at the sleazy hostel where they are staying.

Author Fiona Barton begins her story with Jake calling his mother, Kate Waters, in the middle of the night. He had dropped out of university a couple of years earlier supposedly to help save endangered turtles in Phuket. He’s hardly been heard of since, so of course Kate is distraught.

As a newspaper reporter she is no stranger to disasters happening to other people’s children. She is also no stranger to Fiona Barton’s readers, having appeared in her two previous ones.

Kate is dogged, persistent, smart, sympathetic, and gets to the bottom of the tragedies that she works on. Of course, she seriously wants to understand why her son has more or less disappeared, so she jumps at the chance to go to Thailand to find out what happened to Alex and Rosie.

Detective Bob Sparkes, also well-known to Fiona Barton’s readers and used to working alongside Kate, goes too.

The author unfolds the stories of her characters in short chapters told by or focused on one or other of them. This powerfully shows how people conceal and reveal their actions and feelings.

We see Alex, for example, writing to her parents about what a great time she is having, while also writing to Mags detailing Rosie’s appalling behavior and how she hates being with her. We also see Jake as Alex and Rosie see him: the handsome and highly desirable barman, and as his parents think of him: their beloved son whose frightening behavior worries and hurts them.

The use of two investigators also energizes this book. Bob Sparkes and his police side-kick, Zara Salmonds, have the power of the law on their side and can speak to people that Kate couldn’t get to. Conversely, she has a freedom and flexibility that get her places they couldn’t reach.

By giving the characters roles in more than one story — Jake as the sexy barman and the missing son, Kate the ace reporter and the worried mom, Bob the sharp detective and the grief-stricken husband — the author makes them seem more complex than they really are.

In fact, most are rather simply drawn, but their multiple roles and the brisk narratorial shifts from one to another suggests that the story springs from their motivations. It’s true that Rosie and Jake kickstart some elements, and so does Kate, but mostly “The Suspect” is a plot-driven mystery laced with generous doses of police procedural and family drama especially about the difficulties of parents and young adult children. 

Readers’ sympathies can therefore alight on different people. Onto Jake for example. Has he been pushed into being the family star when he is not really up for it? Or alternately, to Kate and his father, who are beside themselves with worry and frustration at his infrequent calls.

Bob Sparkes’ sick wife, Eileen, certainly wins our affection, but what about Bob, who is so desperate about it that he cannot cope. As for Rosie, she’s so obnoxious nobody can like her, but her parents have messed up their family life, so perhaps we should cut her some slack. 

Both Bob and Kate are well-intentioned, and it would be easy for their creator to sentimentalize them by making them simple good guys, superior to the flawed mortals around them. Fiona Barton does not do this, and it is to the advantage of her novel, which not only grabs attention with its careful spooling out of events, but also raises questions about the relationships between people, especially about parents and children, between work and family.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.

• • •


By Fiona Barton

Berkley, $26, 416 pages

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