The Girls Next Door
Published October 27th, 2016 by Bookouture
Read from September 30th to October 4th, 2016
“Eden glanced at herself in the rear-view mirror as she parked up outside Laura’s house. Her hair was a mess where she had run her hands through it; her face looked pale, worried eyes staring back at her. She seemed to have aged ten years in as many hours.
How could she tell her sister what she knew?”
Mel Sherratt was nominated for the CWA Dagger in the Library award in 2014, and with The Girls Next Door launching a new series to add to her body of work I suspect we’ll see her there again in coming years. Set in the fictional West Midlands city of Stockleigh in the aftermath of the stabbing of local sixteen-year-old Deanna Barker, we follow a series of vicious assaults on young people in the Mitchell Estate. When DS Eden Berrisford’s own teenaged niece goes missing, we found ourselves in a race against time to catch the perpetrator before the community is forced to mourn another loss. Are the assaults and the kidnapping related, or this something altogether more sinister than it first appears?
This is the second of Sherratt’s novels that I’ve read, after Follow the Leader in her DS Allie Shenton series. I gave that particular book 3 stars, primarily because I found it hard to follow such a breadth of character names and nicknames, timeline shifting and an ambitious plot at the same time. The strength of Follow the Leader, however, was the character of Allie; a cop that’s good at her job and has a halfway happy family life is a rare thing in crime fiction, after all. Most compelling was the exploration of Allie’s internal struggle with her relationship and her nursing-home bound sister. This is a theme that is replicated to good effect in The Girls Next Door, with the relationship between Eden and her helpline-counsellor sister Linda forming a major part of this developing series. I hesitate to state that Sherratt has created a “strong, female character” in DS Eden Berrisford; not because she hasn’t indeed done so, but because frankly I think we’ve outgrown the need for ‘strong’ to precede ‘female’ in crime fiction. Eden is a neo-feminist female lead, part of a new generation of protagonists that have redefined the ‘strong equals single and independent women who can kick ass’ approach of the new-wave crew (think Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski). My sense is that today’s ‘strong, female character’ has a lot more to do with how they’re written than adhering to the kick-ass trope. Eden is a complex character, she contributes to the plot, she has flaws and strengths, she has a home-life, she has relationships, she lives and engages with a community, and she has internal moral and professional struggles. In short, she’s human. And she’s the kind of human we can relate to and root for. I suspect as this winning formula is repeated over time, we’ll see less of the phrase ‘strong, female character’ and more discussion of depth of character in great writing.
Character wise, the only thing left wanting was a glimpse of hope for young men. I would have loved to have seen some kind of redeeming action from one of the Barrett boys perhaps (whether that be to explore a moral struggle between the two brothers in deciding to admit their crimes or otherwise), so we weren’t left entirely with a one-dimensional picture of young men as deviants. That said, Sherratt has created a diverse (and therefore interesting) cast of adult men in Eden’s life (both past and present) that should not go without noting.
Below the assaults and kidnapping lies a complex story of teenaged confusion, digital privacy and shame, all in a strong setting provided by Stockleigh and the Mitchell Estate, which will be familiar to the readers of Sherratt’s Estate series. Indeed there are strong hints of both of Sherratt’s previous series here, and I get the keen sense that bringing elements of the two together (the strength of place and relationships in the Estate series, and the strength of character in the DS Allie Shenton series) in such a way has her hitting her stride. This nexus of character and place reminded me in particular of Elizabeth Haynes’ Dark Tide, which is also a romping read for those of you who enjoy this one.
Sherratt leaves us with a neat little hook to spawn speculation about what will be revealed of Eden’s past and how this might play out in her family and in Stockleigh. I'm looking forward to it already.