For a book that clocks in at 264 pages, Sutton packed in a lot of story. I'm having difficulty deciding what to focus on, I've got to say. If only all authors could present a guy with such problems . . .
This book starts off with a child abduction -- a child, Helen Helsop, that we get to know a little bit before she's abducted. Immediately I groaned, because the last thing I wanted to deal with is a book about a little girl getting snatched and then dealing with whatever abuse is looming. Without spoiling much, let me assure you -- nothing like that happens. This is not that kind of kidnapped child story. This doesn't mean that she's been taken for benign or even beneficial reasons, however.
Helen hasn't been living at home -- she's been staying with family in town so she can attend school. Because theirs is a farming community -- predominately, or at least heavily, a dairy and cattle area, and this is 2001 -- the height of the Foot and Mouth crisis. I'll be honest, as an American in a pre-social media age, I didn't have a strong grasp on the effect this had on smaller farmers -- I just never was exposed to it. I got what it meant on the national/industry front, but didn't think much more about it. If I had, it would've been obvious just how much this would decimate a community, an individual family, and why this was such a horrible crisis. Anyway, back to Helen -- she hasn't had a good time of it in this temporary home and is easily persuaded to leave. It's hours (of course) before anyone notices that she's missing, and even then, most of her family doesn't believe she's actually missing.
Before that, thankfully, the police are called in -- we focus on DC Maureen Pritchard -- a well-known fixture in the community (not as well-known as her father, however) and the newly-arrived DS Anna Penrose. There's a little professional jealousy between the two -- Pritchard envies another woman in a position she was denied and Penrose would love the acceptance and respect her fellow officers seem to have for Pritchard. But largely, they can put that aside to focus on Helen. It's obvious from the start that the foster family and Helen's actual family are both holding back from the police, but it's hard to tell if it's germane to the case, or if it's just things that no one wants to share with outsiders.
This is all so compellingly told -- the layers that Sutton is working on are something to behold. She's excellent at revealing more and more about Pritchard and Penrose while they're uncovering more about Helen's life and whoever took her. You could make the case (I think you'd be wrong, but you can make it) that the mystery in this novel takes a back seat to the drama surrounding the women and their superiors. Initially, probably because we meet her first, I was pulling for Pritchard to solve the case, rescue the girl and save the day to put Penrose in her place. But soon, I just wanted the two of them to knock off the nonsense and just work together -- preferably by being open with each other about what's going on. I won't say if I was ultimately satisfied in that desire, but I can say that Sutton deals with their relationship in a way that is absolutely believable and realistic -- a very satisfactory job.
The greatest impediment to the search for Helen isn't the fact that the family is hiding something(s), the difficulty in tracking down a person of interest, the cleverness of the kidnapper, finding a particular van in a decent size, getting a straight answer out of scared kids with overbearing/concerned parents interfering (for nefarious reasons or unintentionally), or any of the other absolutely understandable and inevitable roadblocks. Instead, it's Detective Inspector Stanley Bell -- he's too focused on the budget and on impressing his DCI, not that we can forget his obvious misogyny and blatant racism. It'd have been easy for Sutton to leave him as a buffoon, an obstacle, a foil for Pritchard and Penrose -- but she doesn't, there are times when he seems to be a perfectly capable police officer. But those times are the minority -- it is fun to watch his subordinates play him to get their way, Penrose learns from Pritchard's example quickly on this front.
If I tried to talk about the kidnapper, I'd spoil it -- if I tried to talk about Helen's family, I'd fail. I can't summarize what Sutton did there (I was reductionistic enough with the police -- and I'd still be reductionistic if I'd included everything I wanted to say about them) -- I've known men like her father and older brother. I could feel their pain, their frustration -- with their life in general, even before Helen's abduction, which just seemed like the next-to-last straw for them. Between Foot and Mouth, general hardships (physical and financial) related to this lifestyle, too much alcohol, and a wife who wants more than all this -- it's just too much for people to take.
The depiction of Helen is really strong, as well -- she is a scared twelve year-old doing the best she can in a horrible circumstance. At some point the police don't understand why she did X in a situation. I wanted to yell at them, "because she's a scared little kid!" Of course, she's not going to act like a rational adult. (The other thing I had a hard time buying was that given the emphasis the officers put on local knowledge, was that it was the outsider who understood the importance of getting his cows milked to a dairy farmer)
I've gone on too long, and haven't said nearly enough. So let's hit the important things as I try to wrap up.As I said at the outset -- this is not a typical kidnapping novel. Every assumption you make early on in the book will prove to be mistaken, but it all feels organic, it all seemed natural. This isn't one of those books where you can see the author moving pieces around to achieve her ends. I have no doubt she did -- but I couldn't see it. There's some good action, some very clever policework, and a strong psychological-thriller bent to parts of this as well. There's a strong Perry Mason-esque quality to the strategy the police employed at the end, which I appreciated. Burning Secrets ticks almost every box a mystery-fan will have on their list.
This is a novel about family secrets, family problems -- all families, on some level, I'm sure. There are strong threads about options various women take to take care of their families and themselves -- what lengths they may go to, what shortcuts they may take, what hard choices they may make -- to secure happiness, health, or survival. This is a novel about change -- individual and societal -- how difficult that is. But none of these themes detract from a heart-stopping and heart-breaking story about a kidnapping and the consequences radiating from it. All in less than 300 pages -- not a bad feat.
I have no idea if Sutton intends to write more about these characters (there's every reason to think she will, given her track record) -- but I'd love to spend more time with them. If Penrose and Pritchard can turn their détente into some sort of working understanding, or better, a real partnership, they'd be a fantastic combination (for drama, they'd still be interesting if they don't form any closer relationship, but it wouldn't be as fun to read). Sutton does have a pretty hefty backlist, and I should try to dive in -- and you should, too. Start with this, though, it'll whet your appetite for the rest.