When She Was Bad | Tammy Cohen | 2016 (21 April) | Black Swan/Transworld | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Mark Hamilton Recruitment Agency is a successful British company but one part of it has slipped into complacency, failing to reach its targets. Its manager, Gill, is fired and replaced by Rachel Masters, a determined woman who is used to turning businesses around. Friendships matter far less than success for Rachel and that means uneasy days lie ahead for Paula, Chloe, Sarah, Amira, Ewan and Charlie. These six colleagues had every reason to believe that they were friends but now, under this new regime which is dominated by competition and stress, it hurts for them to discover that they may hardly have known each other at all. As Rachel plays one off against the other, each of them has something to prove and more than one has something to hide.
Meanwhile, in the United States, a terrible news item in the British media reminds child psychologist Dr Anne Cater of one of her very first cases. She had assisted at the investigation into the ‘House of Horror’, in which two young children had been discovered in the worst of circumstances and whose futures lay in the balance. All these years later, Anne must ask herself if enough had been done.
When She Was Bad is one of the most intriguing psychological thrillers I’ve read in quite a while. On one hand we’re told the events that take place in a thoroughly normal British office workplace that I’m sure many of us can recognise – I certainly can. On the other we’re taken into the comparatively unfamiliar environment of the American social services and prison system where we follow the disturbing and upsetting case of Child L and Child D. It’s obvious from the opening chapters that these two worlds will clash but we’re none the wiser as to how until the final utterly gripping, shocking pages.
The narrative moves between the main protagonists, giving us the perspectives of Anne as well as each of the Recruitment Agency employees. The employees have such a hard time of it after their new manager Rachel arrives and we watch as each struggles to deal with work suddenly becoming a much more crucial and central part of their lives. Families and relationships fall by the wayside as do, most critically, their office friendships. We watch them outside the office, empathising with their methods of coping, and worry for them at work as they endure competitive interviews and, rather horrifyingly, a weekend bonding exercise in the countryside – something that puts the fear of God into most of them and into me. Both men and women have their own issues and these are sensitively dealt with. As we learn more about each of the characters, rather surprisingly, I found myself caring more and more for the usurper Rachel. I wasn’t expecting that and I think it shows just how cleverly Tammy Cohen writes.
This is an environment to which I can honestly relate. I’ve worked in consultancies where you have to watch one member of the team after another being made redundant, waiting for the day when your time will come. I found this difficult reading at times, it’s so honest and real. But the novel was saved from being too painful by its second story that threads through the novel – the ‘House of Horror’. When the two stories merge it is impossible to put When She Was Bad down. I didn’t guess but I was desperate to know. And the red herrings are plentiful and marvellous.
Tammy Cohen has written a thoroughly gripping and intriguing novel, populated by characters I believed in, so much so that I could recognise people in them! The merging of the two stories is done very well indeed, turning a psychologically intense novel into a dramatic crime thriller.