If you are looking for a gritty British detective/mystery novel for the weekend, Fiona Barton’s The Widow is a fine choice. Set in the years 2006-2010, the plot involves Internet chat rooms, child porn and a missing toddler named Bella Elliott. Our main characters are Detective Bob Sparkes, who is obsessed with finding Bella, journalist Kate Waters, who is obsessed with getting the scoop, Glen Taylor, who is obsessed with child porn, and his wife Jean, who tries her best to protect her husband and marriage. Barton starts near the end of the story, June of 2010 shortly after Glen has died in a traffic accident. She then weaves back and forth between the events of 2006 that got Glen in trouble with the law and the current situation for his widow Jean. She also weaves in and out among three narrators, Bob, Kate and Jean. While this might have become a confusing mess, Barton does an expert job of keeping the lines of the story clear and keeping her reader on edge trying to figure out what happened to Bella and where the guilt lies.
The action begins in June of 2010, just after Glen Taylor has died. Both the police and public opinion had long thought him to be the despicable pervert who abducted Bella Elliott, but her body was never found and Glen was never convicted. Now a determined reporter named Kate Waters has talked her way into the Taylor home to interview Jean, the widow. For years the press has hounded the Taylors but they have never granted interviews. Glen had forbidden Jean to speak to them, and mousy Jean was very willing to accede to Glen’s demands. Jean is our first narrator and as she thinks about her life, she shows the reader that she has always subordinated herself to Glen’s demands. She was swept away by him at the age of 19, and despite Glen’s job troubles, his arrest for suspicion in an abduction, and his demonstrable porn addiction, she has stood by him and believed his excuses. Now it seems that Jean is about to be dominated by Kate Waters, a similarly aggressive and dominating personality who can don the guise of friendly commiseration with ease. Kate has been involved with the Bella Elliott/Glen Taylor story since in broke in October 2006, and she built a strong personal bond with Bella’s mother Dawn, too. Additionally, Kate has a good relationship with the chief detective in the Bella Elliott case, Bob Sparkes. Bob respects Kate’s work and her professionalism, he pities Jean for the situation that her husband has placed her in, but he also suspects that Jean knows more than she tells. He hopes that with Glen’s death, Jean will open up about what happened in 2006.
From here, Barton takes us back to 2006 and slowly reveals the events of October 2, the date of Bella’s abduction, and the subsequent years involving the police force’s investigation. We see Bob’s obsession with finding Bella and the toll it takes on his marriage and on his career when a particular tactic goes wrong. We also see Jean’s and Glen’s deteriorating psychological states as their secrets, destructive desires, the relentless press, and negative public opinion take their toll. The reader is left wondering if the police have been barking up the wrong tree. Glen is a nasty person, but did he abduct the child? And through it all, Barton is able to show why Jean stays with him. In addition to the question of what really happened in October 2006, we also wait to see if Jean will really speak with Kate and provide the scoop that every news outlet has pursued for over 3 years. Jean, the widow, really is the lynchpin in the story. Despite being so submissive and passive during her marriage, she seems to have knowledge that the police want, and perhaps she will show some independence now that Glen is gone.
The novel is hard to put down. Barton’s characters are realistic — human, flawed, occasionally bold and heroic except Glen, who is a nasty jerk from the get-go, but that doesn’t mean he abducted the child. You’ll have to read the book to get to the bottom of that. Bob Sparkes is a smart, sharp officer who has worked his way up in the force but perhaps has become too emotionally invested in this case. Kate can be very sympathetic and friendly to her interviewees but can also be ruthless in getting what she wants. And Jean, the widow, might have more to her than meets the eye. The Widow is engaging and fast-paced, and might make you think twice about the security settings on your FaceBook account. Good stuff!