Monday 14 October 2019

Dirty Little Secrets review: Brisk, busy plotting are secret to Jo Spain's latest success story

Crime: Dirty Little Secrets

Jo Spain

Quercus, hardback, 416 pages, €16.99

Flow: Spain keeps the story moving swiftly. Pic Steve Humphreys
Flow: Spain keeps the story moving swiftly. Pic Steve Humphreys
Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Dirty Little Secrets, the new novel from Irish crime fiction's current hot-ticket Jo Spain, is, on one level, incredibly formulaic.

We've got the mixture of murder-mystery and domestic/neighbourly melodrama. We've got the suburban setting, with its pristine façade - a swanky housing development in Co Wicklow - hiding many, many dark secrets. We've got the investigating detectives - about-to-retire Frank and hungry newbie Emma - initially mismatched but ultimately cultivating respect and affection for each other. We've got intrigue, sexual shenanigans, families coming apart, individuals breaking down under the pressure of hiding their murky true selves.

We've got the deracinated, "this could be anywhere" language and atmosphere. Our Wicklow village is the English-sounding Marwood; characters are called George and Alison, Olive and Matt; people speak only of "police" and "officers", not the Guards as we do in real life. We've got the soupçon of social commentary. We've got the standard writing style - flat, brisk, neutral.

Dirty Little Secrets ticks all the boxes, then, which generally doesn't bode well for the reader. Art constructed according to a formula is never that appealing.

All of this will give the impression that I didn't enjoy it. However - and it's a big "however" - that would be erroneous. Damn it if this isn't one very entertaining novel.

I started Dirty Little Secrets tutting and harrumphing, in the time-honoured manner of the supercilious literary critic, at all the tropes and clichés. After 20 pages, I found myself wanting to know a bit more.

By 50 pages, the story had me in its claws - escape looking increasingly improbable. By 100 pages, I was completely hooked, and flying through the book in a madcap race to finish it and unearth all those titular dirty secrets.

Olive Collins is possessor of many of those, and connected to almost everyone else's. She's just been discovered, dead, in her home in Withered Vale: the exclusive six-house development which grew up around Olive's long-standing cottage. Her body has lain there, decomposing, for three months; clearly the residents keep to themselves, and don't pop into one another's houses all the time.

Detectives Frank and Emma discover that Olive died from a heart-attack: nothing too suspicious for a woman in her mid-fifties. Then they discover that her gas boiler has been tampered with, and the windows and vents sealed shut: now they get suspicious.

Thus begins the questioning of the neighbours. Each has something to hide, and many had crossed swords with the victim in the days and weeks leading up to her death.

We meet alpha-vegetarian David and earth mother Lily; Matt the meek accountant and wife Chrissy, who's carrying on with raffish salesman Ron (he was also sleeping with Olive); George the Trustafarian with a pornography addiction; Ed and Amelia the sketchy retired couple currently sunning it up out foreign; nervous single mother Alison and her precocious but fragile daughter, Holly.

All are dodgy to some degree; all had a reason to want Olive dead. (She herself fills in much of this background in narrative "postcards from the dead": a nice touch.)

There's so much going on here; the plot is so busy, imaginative, cleverly structured and zippily-paced, that resistance is basically impossible. That's the genius of Spain as a writer, I think: she keeps it moving very briskly, hitting all the key beats at the right moments, barely giving you time to breathe.

There's little of that boring "building up the backstory" you get in most domestic noir. And, thank God, very few interior monologues, where characters mull over an incident that we, the readers, have just seen for ourselves, in repetitive and energy-sapping detail.

Instead, Spain shows, not tells. Something happens, and then something else happens, then something unexpected happens, and we shoot this way and that way, find ourselves turned on our heads, things are still happening, and more things… and we're still only halfway through.

In some senses, Dirty Little Secrets is closer to a soap opera than a crime novel - and that's not meant as an insult. Soaps are all about story, incident, revealing character through action. They're lively and unpretentious and enjoyable - and so is this book.

Funnily enough, I didn't care for Spain's recent TV debut, Taken Down, specifically because it suffered from the flaws of many domestic crime novels: painfully slow, relationships before action, little tension or excitement, the feeling you're being hammered over the head with a message.

Dirty Little Secrets, though: this would make a rocking good TV show. Or better yet, a 90-minute movie: zippy, sparky, violent, a bit OTT, a bit trashy, a whole lot of fun.

Darragh McManus's novels include 'Shiver the Whole Night Through' and 'The Polka Dot Girl'

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