When I stumbled upon British crime writer Clare Mackintosh a few years ago, it was her bio that caught my attention. “Mackintosh spent twelve years in the police force..” it read on the jacket of her debut psychological thriller I Let You Go. In an interview, she said that she was one of the few in her force who enjoyed putting a file together, writing statements and telling the stories of victims and witnesses. She left the force in 2011 and now writes full time. “I’ve got a little bit of an inside track..it’s lazy for me to write crime really...” she joked.
But there’s nothing lazy about Mackintosh’s thrillers – understated, delicately written, even thought-provoking, with a bit of the story tucked away till the very last word. Her background promises a certain brand of authenticity and indeed all three of her novels deliver – in drawing a portrait of how a survivor’s mind works, the intricacies of police investigations, the way officers engage with each other, and going beyond the details to present a mystery that is devastating, empathic and cerebral.
I Let You Go delivered many thrills in a tense, unpredictable drama entangled in domestic abuse and the death of a young boy in a hit-and-run. In her second book, I See You, Mackintosh employed a more straightforward style to give us a creepy tech-savvy criminal preying on women commuting to work on the London Underground. The story feeds off a very real urban paranoia and claustrophobia – universal but with a keen sense of a bleak, unsafe London.
Real life meets fiction
In her newest thriller, Let Me Lie, an unidentified voice begins: “Death does not suit me. I wear it like a borrowed coat, it slips off my shoulders and trails in the dirt. It is ill fitting. Uncomfortable.”
In an audacious story inspired by a real-life case, an elderly couple is reported to have committed suicide, seven months apart, leaving no trace of their bodies. A year on, their young daughter Anna, nursing her eight-week-old baby Ella, hasn’t been able to find any closure at all, losing her parents the way she did with no signs that could explain the double suicide. When she receives an anonymous note that says “Suicide? Think again”, Anna is jolted out of her grief to try and get to the bottom of her parents’ death.
The evidence of foul play lands on the desk of Murray Mackenzie, a gentle, retired detective with decades of experience, now working in the force as a civilian. It isn’t in his brief to play detective any longer, but he is tempted to ignore protocol in this case because he feels for Anna. Getting involved is also likely to keep his mind off his own domestic anxieties surrounding the failing mental health of his wife.
The thriller unfolds in three voices: Anna’s, Murray’s and the unidentified one, seemingly from beyond the grave. Soon enough, it dawns on Anna that nothing at home was as her parents pretended it to be. Despite their posh house and a car showroom business, there was financial trouble. Her parents’ relationship was clearly not what she thought it was. Her circle of support is small but assuring, helping her through this difficult time – Mark, her live-in partner, Billy, her uncle, and Laura, her childhood friend whom her mother loved like her own daughter.
Women at the centre
In Let Me Lie Mackintosh explores the desperate sorrow that takes over when you discover your parents deliberately caused you the pain of bereavement and how you would – if you could – rebuild a relationship with them. There is also a sense that Mackintosh writes not merely for the thrill of messing with our heads to deliver a knockout but to be able to tell compelling stories borne out of relevant social issues – in this book, addressing suicide and mental health, and in a neat twist subverting the dynamics of domestic violence as we imagine it to happen.
Working with a loose template of grief, trauma, motherhood, crime against women and predators and criminals who are one of us, among us, at our doorstep, in our home, her core characters are all women, of varying disposition. They are women who’ve lost children, single women with grown children, women who choose to not have children, women with addiction, women who suffer through violence, women who choose to be violent and are purveyors of deep perversion. While the police procedural strands and atmosphere are rooted in reality, her plots are, of course, far slicker than what a real life crime would likely look like: few of the criminals and their crimes she came across as a police officer were as clever and it wouldn’t make for great reading, Mackintosh knows. Fiction gives her the control over her quietly unsettling narratives – with minimal bloodshed – the way a job in the force didn’t.
There’s another kind of authenticity that charges another recent thriller – prosecutor-turned-criminal law professor and bestselling author Alafair Burke’s The Wife. I haven’t read any of her other books but this compulsive domestic thriller kept me up past 3 am so I could finish it before I closed my eyes. At first, The Wife gives off the impression of being a pulpy mystery. It isn’t.
“In an instant I became the woman they assumed I’d been all along: the wife who lied to protect her husband.” The wife is Angela and her husband is Jason. From the first page, the #metoo movement takes centrestage in the novel, in an unnerving, surreal way. Young Angela Mullen, a single mother who grew up in a small town is swept off her feet by the good looking, sensitive Jason Powell, a economics professor at NYU she meets one evening at a party that she is catering in East Hampton. She doesn’t imagine it will go beyond a fling, and when it does, she looks forward to a nice, quiet life with her new husband in New York, where she can finally leave behind her harrowing past very few know about. At least not all of it.
Capturing the #MeToo moment
When Jason suddenly becomes a media celebrity and cultural icon, bolstered by the success of his bestselling book Equalonomics, which talks up gender equality at the workplace, Angela struggles to shrink into the background. But the spotlight turns unimaginably unwelcome when a college intern at Jason’s consultancy files a case of sexual harassment against him. Angela is caught between guarding her own secrets and the scandal that threatens to ruin her husband’s reputation. When another sexual harassment charge follows, it gets harder for Jason to dismiss it as a misunderstanding.
The Wife follows the two cases of sexual harassment through the eyes of Angela and the detectives investigating them, referencing similar real life cases against celebrities. Burke makes the nuances convincing, whether it is Angela’s empathy towards the women who were allegedly violated, noting the difference between how a male and a female police officer would take down a sexual abuse complaint, the way in which a ruthless criminal lawyer would assassinate the character of the women who’ve filed the complaints, and the star journalist and friend to Jason and Angela who offers her own perspective on how to use the media to stem the damage.
Most of all, it’s interesting to read a thriller that speaks to an important, ongoing moment, presenting a complex story with greys and multiple perspectives while layering it with the hypocrisy that it exposes. The tone shifts as we discover the truth about Angela’s past towards the end of the novel, when the narrative becomes a lot more larger than life, leaving the footprints of #metoo behind.
In a towering pile of psychological thrillers, when it’s hard to identify the inventive ones from the derivative, both The Wife and Let Me Lie are solid picks for a rainy weekend read.