‘Tall Oaks’, Chris Whitaker’s 2016 novel of small town American intrigue revolving around the disappearance of a three-year-old boy was an incredibly assured debut and trumpeted the arrival of an impressive new talent. Rightly acclaimed, it is a brilliant read, a pitch black yet hilarious and touching tale that brought to mind the work of David Lynch, in particular ‘Twin Peaks’, and films such as ‘Fargo’.
So the big question: after such a striking first offering, would Whitaker’s sophomore effort suffer from ‘difficult second album syndrome’? Could he produce the goods again, and cement his reputation as one of the most unique new voices in the crime writing genre?
Set in 1994, ‘All the Wicked Girls’ introduces us to the small Bible Belt town of Grace, Alabama, with its people reeling from ‘The Fear’: a series of unsolved disappearances of local girls, all of them church-going, ‘good’ young women. When star student and musical prodigy Summer Ryan vanishes the locals worry that she is yet another victim to add to the ever-growing list. This is the catalyst for Raine, Summer’s troubled sister, and her unlikely sidekicks Noah and Purv to join forces to find the missing girl. What follows is an extraordinary descent into the underbelly of Grace, with its motley collection of disenfranchised characters who are as far removed from ‘The American Dream’ as you could possibly imagine.
Back to that big question: does Whitaker pull it off? Well think season one of True Detective and you’re close to the tone and atmosphere of ‘All the Wicked Girls’. But think of the books of Frank Bill and Donald Ray Pollock and Denis Johnson and Daniel Woodrell too, because this – a glorious, seething, sweaty slice of Southern Gothic – is up there with all of them. Possibly even better than some of their work. What Whitaker has produced here is sublime. ‘Tall Oaks’, as great as it is, was just a taste of what the author had in store for readers – this new book is exquisitely written, with the darkest of hearts, but so beautiful and human and moving that it has been reducing people – me included – to tears. There is writing here that makes your jaw drop, and fills you with joy, and makes you close your eyes and wish that you had the ability to craft something as achingly gorgeous.
This is a crime novel, yes, but it is so much more than that. It is a study of marginalised folk, of broken dreams, of haunted people just trying to get by. It is uplifting and funny and sad. And it is about friendship and lust and grief and the things we will do for our loved ones, no matter how dark the path it takes us down.
But in short, ‘All the Wicked Girls’ is a very special novel, from a very special writer.