From the author of The Widow and The Child comes a brand new mystery thriller by Fiona Barton: The Suspect. Two recent high school graduates from the UK travel to Thailand for the trip of a lifetime, only to end up missing, and their desperate parents are frantic to find out what happened. Enter Kate Waters, the plucky older journalist, who’s there to report what happened to Alex and Rosie. Only this time, Kate finds herself in the thick of things, and the story becomes personal. Her son Jake, who she hasn’t seen since he escaped for Thailand, supposedly for wildlife conservation efforts, is somehow involved in the disappearance of the two girls. As Kate discovers more and more about what happened to Alex and Rosie, uncomfortable memories surface, and for once, Kate is the reported, not the reporter. Is her son a suspect?
Much like her previous novels, The Suspect is mainly from the point of view of Kate Waters/The Reporter, Barton’s Mary Sue protagonist. We also have a familiar face in DI Bob Sparkes/The Detective, who is struggling to separate the personal (his wife is dying) from the professional (solving a murder mystery). We also have Lesley O’Connor/The Mother, missing girl Alex’s mum, who changes from innocent to aggressive as the story progresses. We also have emails and Facebook statuses from Alex O’Connor, from her arrival in Thailand to the day of her disappearance, interspersed between the other chapters, which are set a month later.
It is a slow burn throughout most of the book, but you’ll want to keep reading just to figure out what happened to Alex and Rosie. Did they die? If so, who killed them? There are a slew of suspects relating to their disappearance at a motel Alex describes as “the penthouse of Bates Motel”, which in actuality is Mama’s Paradise Bar and Guesthouse on Khao San Road. Who are these suspects? There’s Kate’s son, Jake, of course. We also have Jamie, or JW, who has a crush on Alex; Lars and Diederik, the Dutch boys; Mama, the owner of the guesthouse; and Ross, one of Jake’s friends in Bangkok. There wasn’t much mystery with who’s responsible for what happened to Alex. I basically worked out that suspect right from the beginning, and it stems from that trope in 2010s psychological thrillers of It’s Always The One Nice Guy™.
The surprise came for me in the revelation of what happened to Rosie, because can you blame me for thinking the two were connected? Also, you have every reason to believe Alex’s Suspect also hurt Rosie. Even though you should be feeling sorry for Rosie, this book is still majorly from Kate’s POV, and mixed with Alex’s grievances over Rosie, you don’t feel as guilty as you should. Near the end, Kate goes into a rant about everyone braying for blood, as if that will bring innocents back to life, and despite disliking Kate throughout the majority of this book, you can understand where she’s coming from. You understand her motivations, even though she’s a massive hypocrite, because if she were just The Reporter, you’d bet your ass she’d be spilling the details as quickly as she could. My dislike of Kate is cemented near the beginning of the book, where she’s upset her husband’s sleazy drunk workmate insults her profession: journalism. She chucks a drink in his face, offended. And she proceeds to prove him correct when she cosies up to Lesley and Malcolm O’Connor, just so she can write the best story before the rival papers. And then she has the audacity to be annoyed at her rival Louise Butler for doing the same thing! Only when things get personal does Kate realise just how insensitive she has been in all her years as a journalist.
Despite my intense dislike of Kate for the majority of this book, I think that’s a testament to Barton’s writing that I’m three books into the Kate Waters journey, and I’m still loving these books. By making the third chapter in Kate’s story more personal, I feel like it added a fresh injection into the series (which can also be read as standalones, it’s just a few references won’t make sense) by making Kate’s intrusive-journalist behaviour from previous books used against her by other reporters, even her own buddies, like Joe Jackson, who she trained in The Child.
While I did enjoy Kate’s Reveal right at the end, I felt like the interrogation for Alex’s Suspect by DI Sparkes was a little too much telling, even though we’re still not sure if The Suspect was fully telling the truth or not. It was too much of Sparkes saying, “So you murdered them?” and The Supsect saying “What!?” and then silence and then “Okay…it was an accident! But I did do X and Y and Z!”
By showing Kate as the reported instead of the reporter, we finally had Kate realise the insidious ways of the media, even though she was perpetuating a lot of the behaviour. She was both criticising the behaviour and allowing it to continue, so it was interesting to see her rationalise it all, which culminated in the ending, where we see how Kate is a deep, flawed character, and not all black and white. As she says:
He [Kate’s husband Steve] sees things so simply—they’re either right or they’re wrong. I see beyond, into the gray, blurred margins where the consequences wait.
One thing that grated on me—but wasn’t Barton’s fault—was the inconsistencies between UK and US English. In the example above, “gray”, the Americanisation is used, but we also see “mum”, for example, which is UK English. I feel like later editions of this book could do with more heavy editing, to smooth out the mistakes, but maybe it’s just the writing major in me.
I particularly enjoyed reading from Alex’s point of view—her emails to her friend Mags, her fake life on social media, her struggle to find herself—and even though I’m slightly older than Alex, it felt relatable, which makes what happens to her all the more devastating. And even though you come to dislike Rosie, you feel awful for her too, especially at the moment where Alex discovers the truth.
While The Suspect is not as great as The Widow, the “New York times Bestselling Book”, I feel like it was far more engaging and better than Fiona Barton’s second book. While one of the plot twists may be exactly what you were expecting, the rest of the reveals will surprise you. It was a slow read, but it’s worth it in the end. The ending leaves a hook for future Barton releases, and I’ll be interested to see how Kate Waters deals with anything that threatens the facade she is showing to the world—much like the facade Alex O’Connor was giving to Facebook about her Phuket holiday. While you may not like Kate, this book injects her with some humanity, finally showing this reporter that real-life stories affect real-life people. It’s unfortunate she had to find out the hard way.
This book will be a hard read for parents who are raised to protect their children from the outside world…but what if it’s the outside world that needs protecting from your child? Is your child The Victim or The Suspect? As the book cover says… Every mother knows her child….doesn’t she? This book won’t be what you expect.