Book review: The Widow by Fiona Barton

The Widow byFiona Barton
The Widow byFiona Barton
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A journalist who spent her professional life ‘people watching’ has turned her talents to novel writing… and the result is one of the best debut crime thrillers you will read this year.

Fiona Barton, a Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph veteran and a Reporter of the Year winner at the British Press Awards, is a born newshound, a ‘trained observer’ who has spent years ‘picking up the body language and verbal tics’ that define who a person is.

Along the way, she interviewed victims and guilty alike but it wasn’t always the accused that caught her attention when she covered some of the most notorious criminal trials… it was the wife of the man in the dock. What did she really know, or allow herself to know?

Thereby hangs a tale and what a tale it is; a blistering, gripping, slow-burn mystery full of sexual darkness and shocking revelations that is guaranteed to keep the pages turning and the heart drumming, and will almost certainly set the benchmark for 2016.

When two-year-old Bella Elliott was snatched from the front garden of her council home near Southampton in 2006, the nation was horrified for her distraught young, single mother and the police launched a massive hunt.

Months later, Bella still hadn’t been found but Glen Taylor, a delivery driver from London, became prime suspect and when he was eventually charged with a terrible crime, his face – now the face of a man labelled a monster – stared out from the front page of every newspaper.

But the only person who really knows whether he was a wrongly-accused, loving husband or a heartless killer is Jean ‘Jeanie’ Taylor, the wife who stood by him and gripped his arm on the courtroom stairs.

Until then, Jeanie’s life had been blissfully ordinary. Married at just 19, the 40-year-old hairdresser had a nice house and a nice husband. Glen was all she’d ever wanted… he took over her life and she liked the security that gave her.

Four years later Glen is dead and Jeanie is alone for the first time and pursued by the press who want her story. Seduced by Kate Waters, an experienced reporter who gets close to her quarry by ‘feeding them little bits of kindness and humour,’ Jeanie agrees to an exclusive interview.

Also eager to unearth the truth is DI Bob Sparkes, the ‘straight-up-and-down’ copper who led the inquiry into Bella’s disappearance and knows that patience is a virtue when it comes to detective work.

But will Jeanie reveal all and can her account be trusted? Because every marriage has its secrets, and some secrets are ‘dangerous things’…

Barton reveals the hidden darkness of Glen and Jeanie’s complex, claustrophobic relationship through devastating, small, intimate details and a series of almost throwaway lines and arresting revelations that vividly expose the dangerous fault lines in their marriage.

At the heart of the story lies Jeanie, the shy, compliant housewife whose increasingly confident and riveting narration of events past and present is offset by the parallel accounts of cool, calculating reporter Kate and dogged detective Bob, prepared to go to unorthodox lengths in his obsessive desire to nail Glen Taylor.

And there are many mind games to be played out, not least in the expectations of the reader, as the truth behind little Bella’s disappearance slowly unravels.

The Widow is a brilliant first novel, intelligent, unsettling and utterly compelling, and written with the control, assurance and mastery of a seasoned author. Don’t miss it!

(Bantam, hardback, £12.99)