Quercus | 2019 (7 February) | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book
The exclusive gated community of Withered Vale in Ireland appears to have much going for it. These are expensive houses, their owners are aspirational and wealthy, their children allowed to roam free behind the gates. But not all is as it seems. Secrets lurk behind each of these doors but particularly behind No 4. The body of Olive Collins, the owner of No 4 Withered Vale, lay unnoticed and undiscovered for three long months. It was the cloud of flies bellowing out of the chimney that finally gave the game away. Police officers Frank Brazil, so close to retirement, and his partner Emma, so close to the start of her career, are given charge of the investigation into what might be a suspicious death. As they begin to make their visits around the small number of houses on Withered Vale, there are questions they really need the answer to – why did nobody in this small community notice that Olive was missing? Perhaps because they knew that she wasn’t?
This is such a gripping read! And it is indeed packed full of dirty little secrets and it’s up to Frank and Emma to wheedle them out of the occupants of the perfectly named Withered Vale. We’re introduced to each of the households one by one as key members of the community take over the narrative – we have the cheesy lover, the pretentious (and rich) hippies, the mother and daughter who keep themselves to themselves, the retirees who may or may not have been in their holiday home abroad at the time of Olive’s death, there is the son of a wealthy man who now lives alone and is controlled by his addiction, there’s the loving couple who really hate one another, and there’s the wayward children. And then there’s Olive. Olive better than anyone seemed to know what was going on within each of these elegant houses. Her voice isn’t neglected in Dirty Little Secrets. Olive speaks from the grave.
My favourite characters in Dirty Little Secrets, though, apart from one of the young children, are the police officers, Frank and Emma. They investigate this case, hanging around the Vale constantly, almost as if their bosses are trying to get rid of them. Frank is so close to retirement. It’s as if they want to keep him out of trouble. Emma has much to learn but she has a distinctive feel for the case that Frank is keen to develop. Their relationship is absolutely fascinating. They each have their own past to deal with, which they slowly reveal to the other. It’s poignant and so beautifully done. I grew to care for both of these people very much.
And this is what makes Dirty LIttle Secrets such a sophisticated and elegant triumph. The reader might have their preconceptions about the way in which this novel might develop, not least due to the signpost of its title, but they will be wrong. I’m not going to say anything at all about this except to urge you to keep your expectations on hold.
Dirty Little Secrets is such a clever, rich and witty novel. It has that wonderful Agatha Christie feel of a crime committed by one of a small number of confined suspects. There’s such a charm about the way in which we learn about the goings on in each of the houses. But then the reality kicks in and that’s what left me enthralled. People are complicated, even if they live in Withered Vale or if they have to police it, and Jo Spain teases out their true natures, their involving stories, in such a fascinating way. I loved The Confession but it’s quite possible that Dirty Little Secrets is even better. Jo Spain’s books will always go straight to the top of my reading pile.