All The Wicked Girls is Chris Whitaker’s second novel. Following on from his highly successful debut ‘Tall Oaks’ which was published in 2016.
The blurb goes: ‘Raine sometimes complains that nothin’ exciting is ever gonna happen in Grace again.
Daddy told her careful what you wish for.
Everyone loves Summer Ryan. A model student and musical prodigy, she’s a ray of light in the struggling small town of Grace, Alabama – especially compared to her troubled sister, Raine.
Then Summer vanishes.
Raine throws herself into the investigation, aided by a most unlikely ally, but the closer she gets to the truth, the more dangerous her search becomes.
And perhaps there was always more to Summer than met the eye…’
Every once in a while, an author comes on to the scene who has something special. I believe Chris Whitaker is such an author. What makes him special? His ability to write character and voice which is so authentic and visceral, that as a reader, you become completely engrossed in the story, you come to genuinely love the characters, and temporarily forget they are not real.
Whitaker has the Alabama drawl, the Alabama setting and heat, and the Alabama character so perfectly fine tuned, that I had lost myself in the town of Grace within a few short chapters.
The novel is divided into the chapters that are narrated by Summer herself – these are short chapters, with just enough information to keep us tantalized as the mystery unfolds. The other chapters are told in the third person, but they are so tightly narrated they feel as if the various main characters are talking to us directly.
At the heart of this novel is not just a murder mystery, but a story, or should I say several stories of friendship. The friendship I was most drawn to was that between two teenage boys who help Raine to look for Summer – Noah and Perv. Their friendship goes above and beyond, and the love and respect they have for each other is incredibly touching. Both have unique frailties and issues (can’t give away any plot spoilers) and to buoy each other up they use catch phrases like: ‘we’re brave.’ Or, ‘we’re fierce and we’re brave.’
After one of the many scrapes they get into, which they inevitably lose, there is an adorable exchange between the two:
‘I had him,’ Noah said.
‘I know you did,’ Purv said. ‘I had your back.’
‘I know you did.’
Raine and her sister Summer also have a uniquely close bond, and as we come to know the character of Raine, our sympathy grows as we understand how Summer is more than a twin, she is an integral part of Raine’s life, connected in so many ways.
Against this backdrop of messed up lives we have the town of Grace itself. A low down dirty place, where houses are dilapidated, streets are dirty and the town believes the end is nigh, as a predicted storm turns the sky dark and remains that way for weeks.
It is a suffocating atmosphere and the author brilliantly builds the tension of the story, as they sky grows darker, the air grows hotter, and the atmosphere becomes so oppressive you can nearly smell the fear-induced sweat.
As with many small towns in the deep south, religion is a way of life. In Grace, the recently retired Pastor Lumen breathed his own brand of hell fire. The current pastor Bobby is a different man altogether, but cannot escape the torment of his violent past. The irony of Grace is that the majority of the town turn up for church on Sunday before leaving and committing a multitude of sins, ranging from adultery to murder. Like the river that runs through the town, they think by stepping into the church, their sins are miraculously washed away.
This is a novel that fulfills its purpose on every level; the setting, the characters and the story are all uniquely woven to form a masterful piece of work, and one which will live in my memory for a long time. If ‘Tall Oaks’ was a successful debut, then ‘All the Wicked Girls’ deserves all the plaudits, awards and adulation I know have begun, and I hope will continue. An incandescent novel.