BOOK REVIEW, The Suspect, a chilling mystery of two missing teenagers in Thailand

Barton, Fiona - The SuspectThe Suspect
by Fiona Barton

Alex O’Connor and Rosie Shaw went to Thailand for a trip of a lifetime to celebrate the end of secondary school. Unfortunately, after they arrived, Alex, who had originally planned the trip with her best friend Mags, learned that she and Rosie were not of the same mind when it came to organizing their activities. Still, Alex was determined not to tell anyone except her BFF Mags. On social media, she was still maintaining the fiction of an ideal getaway. But when Alex and Rosie miss their scheduled check-in with their parents in England and a week goes by without any contact, they report the eighteen-year-olds missing.

Kate Waters, the dogged reporter from The Widow and The Child sees the potential for a big story and pursues it for her paper, The Post. But she doesn’t count on the events being as personal as they are nor can she imagine the circumstances in Thailand that led to the girls’ tragedy. She must ask herself how far she will go to get to truth and how much she will sacrifice for the story.

The Suspect is structured much like Barton’s previous books. Here, the main point of view characters are the Mother, the Detective, and the Reporter. Only the Reporter chapters told from Kate’s point of view are in first person. The shifting perspectives allows Barton to provide different aspects of the story, but the Detective, DI Bob Sparkes, and the Mother, Lesley O’Connor, are flatter than I prefer in major characters.

One of the best things about the Kate Waters books is that the protagonist is a middle-aged woman defined by her accomplishments instead of her appearance. Though she is often one (or more) steps ahead of the police, she has a generally good relationship with Sparkes. Through their relationship, Barton explores the interdependence of the police and press.

In the novel, mothers play a much more significant role than fathers who range from well-meaning if ineffective to selfish and destructive. The mothers of the two missing girls bear the brunt of the trauma and handle it much differently. Motherhood is also represented by other characters including Kate, Mama, the proprietress of the Bangkok guesthouse where Alex and Rosie are staying, and a series of foster mothers of a character who appears in the novel. They all approach motherhood differently in ways that range from neglectful to supportive to unhealthy, and the mother-child relationships inform how the teenage characters in the novel behave and make decisions.

Social media and how people present personas highlights the theme that it is so difficult to know others when they are controlling their public selves–even when those others are one’s own children.

The narrative is not linear. The greatest effect of this is an impending sense of doom since we know the outcomes of some events before the characters those events effect. At times, though, this device becomes confusing such as when it is used within a chapter to enhance suspense. Instead of evoking a sense of mystery, these moments caused me to step out of the narrative to figure out what was happening.

Having the book set in part in Bangkok was an exciting choice, and I looked forward to seeing English characters in the Thai setting. This, however, was a missed opportunity because the capital city was presented as a den of iniquity that swallowed up westerners. There was only one Thai character of note, and she was a fairly one-dimensional villain. The Thai police were represented as a mixture of incompetent and corrupt and the people in general as untrustworthy. I found this depiction of Thai citizens problematic and wished that Barton had included a more positive Thai representative.

In the previous two Kate Waters books, Kate is generally seen as competent, confident, intelligent, and aggressive. While she still has these traits in The Suspect, she is challenged by the events of the book in a way that makes her to me more interesting. At the end of the book, she was talking about taking a buyout in the Post’s next round of redundancies. I hope that’s not the case. I’d like more of her! This book is not to be missed by Fiona Barton fans. Readers of literary mysteries will also enjoy The Suspect.

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.