It has always been difficult for me to grasp the reality of children killing children. I know they do it, they have always done it. Part of my difficulty lies in the accepted belief that children are, by virtue of being children, innocent. I just can't quite accept that children are able to form the necessary intent to murder. That a child can understand the forever nature of death.
And part of my difficulty it is the sympathy that I feel for the children who have killed, because I don't accept that they intended murder, and know that someday they will grow up and will have to live with this crime of their childhood. That is not to say that I feel no sympathy for the victim's family and loved ones, or for the family of the child who kills. It is a tragedy that spreads pain all around.
In The Wicked Girls, Alex Marwood addresses the reverberations of a childhood crime as it echoes throughout the lives of the girls who committed it.
It has been suggested that the fictional murder in this book reflects the actual murder of Jamie Bulger in February of 1993. That murder sent shockwaves around the world due to the video from a security camera that showed the two boys leading the child from the New Strand Shopping Centre. But the Jamie Bulger murder is only different from the murder of George Burgess in that there was no video, security cameras or shopping malls on April 11, 1861, when two eight-year old boys murdered the two-year old child.
How do we punish children for a murder they were incapable of understanding was a crime? What do we do with them, how do we judge them? And how much influence does the media wield in the discussion?
These are some of the questions that have been floating around my head since reading The Wicked Girls, and what makes that interesting is that the book is not really about the childhood crime. It is about what kind of women the guilty children have become. The murder plays a secondary role to the present lives the women have built.
"The past is never dead. It's not even past." William Faulkner
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood Published by Penguin Group USA - Penguin Books July 30th 2013 384 pages
Kirsty Lindsay was once Jade Walker. But that person now only resides in memory, because Kirsty carries no outward signs of ever being the child of a pig farmer who was pilloried in the press for her part in the murder of a four-year old girl 25 years ago. Today, the educated wife of a banker, and mother of two children, she works as a stringer for major UK newspapers.
Bel Oldacre, the neglected child of a wealthy family, participated in the murder. Like Jade Walker, she only exists in the past, and not in the carefully constructed persona of present day Amber Gordon. Amber is a cleaning supervisor in the seedy amusement park, Funnland, located in Whitmouth, a fictional seaside town. Though not married, she lives with a man of devastatingly good looks and a volatile temper who also works at Funnland.
According to the terms of their (lifetime) parole, the girls are never to communicate with each other and neither has any difficulty in complying with that requirement. Given new identities by the government, they have been living with their secret buried deep and shared with no one. Not husband, lover or friend.
Then one night, while cleaning Innfinnity, Amber finds the dead body of a girl in the hall of mirrors at the Park. This is the third dead girl that has been found in the town and the media descends upon it.
As a stringer, Kirsty is sent to Whitmouth to cover the story. Life at home has become increasingly tense as her husband has still not found new employment after being laid off from his previous, well-paying job in the banking industry. As the bills mount, we watch as she carefully balances the demands of being the sole wage earner and homemaker, with the difficulties inherent in protecting his ego.
Inevitably, her assignment brings her once again into contact with Amber, even though this connection could result in the public exposure of their criminal past and a return to imprisonment for both women.
As the serial killer continues to hunt in the seaside town, the press continues to seek out new angles to report:
She feels sick: ashamed of her colleagues and their ability to use words to throw any light they choose to on a situation. Innuendo, allusion and false connection: the staples of a media that’s still awaiting facts.
The price of keeping the secret, of keeping the past hidden, climbs higher as the murders continue. And that adds to the tension that keeps the pages quickly turning as the reader tries to add up the clues and discard the false leads and red herrings. It is easy to see why it won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original Novel.
Marwood skillfully alternates the stories of the women of today with that of the girls of long ago. We learn more about the childhood murder as we follow the current investigation of the serial killer which leads to a climax and denouement that is both unsettling and at the same time, satisfying. Along the way, there are subtle reminders of the challenges all women face on a daily basis. There are questions about how we treat children, and how different efforts at reformation can lead to different results. And how we can change as we grow.
It was uncanny to read the words that Marwood put into the mind of a killer, knowing she had written them long before the Isla Vista killer went on his murder spree:
The girls are out in force tonight: another Whitmouth party night. Blond and black and neon-red, their hair is piled up, hauled straight, built out and supplemented. They swish improbable nylon tresses into his face as he passes, clutch Primark purses to diamanté belly buttons, slip credit cards deep into their padded bras for safekeeping. And as usual he is invisible. All these girls, looking for excitement, and not one of them so much as glances at him.
Who is she? Who the fuck is she? Who the fuck does she think she is?
And who is Alex Marwood? Who is this author that can combine the facts of a woman's life with the facts of her past and create a riveting thriller? According to her website:
Raised by wolves, Alex Marwood passed her formative years in the lands beyond the Arctic circle, developing pack skills, excellent night vision and an ability to survive on raw protein. Ideally equipped for a life on Fleet Street, she then became a journalist.
Alex herself is a figment of the imagination of the novelist and sometime journalist Serena Mackesy. If you're interested in a more truthful biog, an FAQ and other books, visit her website, here.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.