Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (9 August) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book
When 20-year-old Ryan Summers walks into his college in Edinburgh and shoots dead thirteen female students before using the last bullet on himself, the shocked community is changed forever. All the Hidden Truths strips this horrendous crime bare, searching for the reasons behind it, its devastating repercussions, by focusing on three of the women most affected – Moira, the mother of the killer; Ishbel, the mother of Abigail, one of the victims; DI Helen Birch, the newly promoted officer in charge of the case and also one of the first on scene.
All the Hidden Truths is one of the most intense novels I’ve read in quite a while. It’s one of those books that makes you miss bus stops, makes you not hear when people speak to you (I can vouch for both of these), and its beginning is utterly gripping. We know that this horrendous mass shooting is on the way and it’s all the more powerfully presented as it’s revealed bit by bit, through the experiences of people who were there, the ones who survived. The chapters move between these women (two of them traumatised, the other troubled) and scattered throughout are newspaper reports because this is also a novel about the role of the media at a time such as this. And here they are, the vultures with one foot on the victim’s lawn, or wedged in the doorway.
Each of the women has a fascinating tale to reveal, bit by bit. Moira and Ishbel are almost destroyed by their grief and confusion. But is Moira really a victim? Did she know what Ryan intended to do? Is she to blame? It isn’t any easier for Ishbel as her dead daughter’s character is scrutinised and everything in Ishbel’s life falls apart.
This is all deeply intense and the mood is actually eased a little by the sections which focus on Helen Birch and her efforts to hold her investigation together when she is faced by difficulties from every side. I particularly found these chapters interesting for what they reveal about the role of family liaison officers in situations such as these. Some are new to the job, others have years of experience, but all of them are out of their depth here.
I found All the Hidden Truths a compelling read but I also found it a distressing one. Its mood is sustained throughout and I couldn’t read it all in one go. Instead I read it in three sittings with two other books fitted into the gaps. The novel is superbly written by Claire Askew and she has certainly done her research. So the fact that I found it too intense to read in one go is actually a compliment. It all feels horrifically real, Ryan Summers feels like a young man you can meet on the street, Abigail could so easily be a friend, child or sister. The agonising questions of Why which follow a mass shooting are so hard to answer. Claire Askew here treats those questions with insight and great feeling and care. All the Hidden Truths is an extraordinary and powerful debut.