"The Wicked Girls" by Alex Marwood is a classic case of the book that can't be judged by its cover - both because its story exceeds expectations and its characters are much more than they appear to be on the surface.
The psychological thriller revolves around the lives of two women - a journalist named Kirsty Lindsay and an amusement park worker named Amber Gordon - and their reactions to a series of murders of young women near the park, Funnland, where Amber works.
The women appear to be meeting for the first time when Kirsty talks her way into the park to view the scene of the latest crime, but they quickly realize they met years ago in relation to a very different crime - a murder that they, as 11-year-old girls, committed together under different names.
This book differs from the typical thriller or crime novel in that the unmasking of the serial killer is not the climax of the book; in fact, the solving of these multiple murders is merely a subplot of a larger story.
Marwood expertly intersperses the tale of the murder by "the wicked girls" throughout the main plot - beginning with their first-time meeting earlier that day - and shows the vastly different ways each of them has been affected by her participation in the 25-year-old crime.
While one woman's time in an institution seems to have benefited her - saving her from poverty and abuse and giving her a chance to start fresh and form a new family - the other woman has lost her self-confidence, settled for an abusive relationship and found herself catering to the whims of manipulative people in an effort to redeem herself.
One major theme throughout the book is the idea of nature versus nurture: were these girls truly evil? If they were evil, does that mean they can't change?
Marwood also explores the role the media plays in sensationalizing crime and putting the importance of the scoop ahead of accuracy. Amber seems to partially blame the media's portrayal of her as a priviledged, manipulative girl for the harsher punishment she received, and (without giving too much away here) developments throughout the book show the media hounding the family members and neighbors of potential criminals.
But Marwood adds an interesting twist to the "media vultures" trope by making Kirsty a reporter.
Her internal conflicts about covering a case that seems to get closer and closer to Amber's life - and to potentially revealing Amber's true identity - seem to remind her of the way facts can easily be twisted to fit a particular version of the truth. Kirsty seems to see no irony in her work as a reporter of the truth despite the lie she tells daily to protect her identity.
The story is well-written and thought-provoking, but the "big twist" at the end leaves some threads dangling. As a thriller, "The Wicked Girls" doesn't offer the satisfaction one finds in the more developed works of Sophie Hannah, Tanna French and P.D. James. As a first novel, however, it shows a deft handling of multiple storylines and characters. I'm looking forward to see what else Marwood has up her sleeve.