JUST WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU?

Written by Paula Daly

Review written by Jim Kelly

Jim Kelly lives in Ely, Cambridgeshire, with his partner, the writer Midge Gillies, and their daughter. He is the author of the series starring journalist Philip Dryden. The Dryden series won the 2006 CWA Dagger in the Library award for a body of work giving ‘the greatest enjoyment to readers’


JUST WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU?
Bantam Press
RRP: £14.99
Released: 25th April 2013
Hbk

This is a debut crime novel from Paula Daly and you can see here the seeds of a successful series. It begins – and indeed is dominated by – a kind of ‘domestic nightmare’.

A woman arranges for her daughter’s friend to come round after school to do homework and then have a sleepover, so they can go off to school together next day. Her own child is ill on the day in question and stays at home, so mum forgets all about the arrangements. This means it is not until the next day that everyone discovers the friend has gone missing – the latest victim, it is presumed, of a rapist who has already struck once.

Everyone blames the forgetful Mum – Lisa Kallisto. Indeed the missing girl’s mother and family are close to organising a lynch mob – but this is the English Lake District – so they’re just very nasty. I had my doubts, and still do, over the sturdiness of this conceit. These are teenage girls we’re talking about and they don’t seem to use mobile phones. And why didn’t the mum of the missing girl ring and check she was OK on the night of the sleepover ? More to the point, why did the missing girl presume the sleepover was still on when her friend was off sick from school?

This kind of story works best when it appeals directly to our own fears. (Think back to Fatal Attraction – a one-night stand comes back to haunt a man when the spurned mistress turns stalker and ends up boiling his childrens’ rabbits on  the stove. The ‘bunny boiler’ was born. ). And Daly has tapped into a surprising truth here, that we are more worried about the safety of other peoples’ children than our own when we are placed in loco parentis. But the plot details could have been sharper. 

The book is a good read largely because of the two principal female characters – the tough-minded Lisa Kallisto, who runs a local animal shelter and sets out to make up for her momentary loss of organisational grip by trying to track down the missing girl, and DC Joanne Aspinall, who takes on the case. Aspinall is an inspired creation. Burdened – literally – by an over-sized bust, she is grappling with the decision to have surgery to reduce her breasts. Her bras cut into her skin, she is overweight and prone to flop sweats, and she’s single with a vaguely bleak romantic future. She’s a real person, and she’s got a good detective’s eye. It’s fun spending time with her, and when we are with her the action seems totally real. This is crime novel gold dust. Aspinall is an unlikely star. 

The plot bowls along well enough but this is really a domestic thriller – if I can call it that. It’s about how families live, and how they live with each other. Eventually we have a tale of three missing girls. I don’t like the italic passages where we go inside the criminal’s mind – we’ve all done it, but I suspect it’s time has come and gone. It’s biggest plus is that it makes a connection between the reader and the criminal – but the downside is that the writer doesn’t have to bother about linking the criminal to the other characters. In the end the italic bits are too detached, and frankly, pretty unpleasant, in a vouyeuristic kind of way. But there is a good twist at the end, in fact a very good twist.

But the real power of the book – and the writing – is in domestic detail. Lisa’s family are brought alive with real skill – especially dogged, faithful husband Joe, who could easily double-up as a labrador in Lisa’s animal shelter. Lisa is the over-worked mum from central casting. (Daly comes close to overdoing this. At one point Lisa reminded me of the Olivia Colman character in hospital comedy sitcom Green Wing, getting to her desk only to discover she has left three kids in the car.) There’s a good dog too – Bluey, who ends up playing a surprisingly important role in proceedings. A few passages were written with great truth and power – the scene in which the first abducted girl turns up in town, looking for help, wandering into a travel agents naked from the waist up, is terrifically well done.

If Daly can spin out a few more domestic nightmare scenarios she’ll be on to a winner. I’ve always been haunted by being left in charge of giving children (not my own) any medicine. I’ll leave that thought with you. And PS: I could have done without the preachy ‘author’s note’ at the end which told us how Daly was inspired by a story on Oprah about a woman who left a child in a car, who later died of heatstroke. I don’t think fiction gets any better if we’re told it’s based on real life. 

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