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Review: Fiction: The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne

The James Bulger murder has cast a long shadow over contemporary writing about crime. Ingenious serial killers, professional hitmen, and bodies in the vicarage library were one thing -- safe, familiar; all just part of the literary game. The senseless torture and murder of a two-year-old child by two ordinary 10-year-old boys is quite another.

Trying to find a way to write about it sensitively was difficult. Blake Morrison came closest with As If, a memoir of his own childhood linked to his thoughts on the case; Jonathan Trigell's award-winning Boy A was an equally powerful dramatisation of the troubled life of an infamous child killer once he's grown up and been released.

Now Lisa Ballantyne has plumbed the Bulger case again with her debut novel, The Guilty One, which was sold for large advances to 20 countries and comes dripping with the sort of accolades for its psychological acuity not seen since husband-and-wife team Nicci French burst onto the crime writing scene.

The story is simple enough. A little boy by the name of Ben has been killed in a local playground; an older boy by the name of Sebastian is charged with the killing. Sebastian says he's innocent. He also has an alibi, of sorts.

Enter Daniel, a solicitor assigned to the defence. Daniel had a troubled childhood of his own, including a difficult relationship with his foster mother Minnie, now dead.

The novel, telling these stories in alternating chapters, centres on two mysteries: Did Sebastian commit the crime? And what happened between Daniel and his foster mother long ago that caused their estrangement?

As it happens, the solution to neither puzzle is particularly earth- shattering. Most readers familiar with the genre will see them coming a long way off.

There is always too the inherent danger in a book with parallel storylines that one of them will prove less interesting, thereby unbalancing the narrative. Here Daniel's childhood struggles to provide the drama provided by the present-day trial. Plenty of padding is needed to stretch out a few incidents to book length. Less would definitely have been more.

Add in a rather suffocating liberal bias to the whole enterprise which makes it feel rather didactic in tone, and there's a lot to dislike as the novel unfolds.

It's taken for granted that children should not be judged to have moral or criminal responsibility for their actions, and that imprisonment of the young is self-evidently wrong.

The central characters all agree with, rather than challenge, one another on their complacent certainties about this issue, and the victim and his family scarcely get a look in.

Nonetheless, in a genre often characterised by sensationalism, Lisa Ballantyne deserves credit for producing such a sober and restrained piece of work; there is nothing giddy or overwrought here.

It's a work of genuine substance about real human beings with real human flaws, in which nothing can be tied up neatly because life doesn't work like that. The Guilty One puts her firmly on the list of writers to watch.

Indo Review