The Murder Room’s Christmas recommendations continue with I Know Who Did It author Steve Mosby presenting his case for Maggie Mitchell’s debut novel, Pretty Is.
Abducted children are a long-standing trope in crime fiction, and it’s easy to understand why: a missing child immediately creates urgency and tension and a mystery to be solved, along with intense emotional engagement. The trope seems very popular right now, but if Pretty Is – the excellent debut novel by Maggie Mitchell – sounds at first like it will be ploughing familiar territory, it swiftly becomes clear that it’s working much more fertile and interesting ground.
The novel follows two very different women, Lois and Chloe, who were abducted as twelve year olds and held captive in a cabin in the woods by a man they come to know only as Zed. Six weeks later, during a police operation, Zed was killed and the girls were freed. Seventeen years on, both girls have fulfilled their potential to some degree. Chloe, a former child beauty-pageant winner, works as a C-list actor; she regularly plays the pretty blonde who dies early on. Lois, a spelling bee champion, has become a professor of literature and written a pseudonymous novel, Lost in the Woods, based on her and Chloe’s abduction as children. When a movie of the novel is commissioned, Chloe recognises the story as a corruption of her own and auditions for a part.
There is suspense in the modern day, but the truth about what happened in the woods is the motor that drives the book, and on that level our expectations are constantly confounded. Unhappy with their home lives, the girls appear to go all but willingly with their captor. Their time in the woods seems relatively carefree – almost a positive experience. Zed’s motives are oblique, but he rarely seems threatening; he wants the girls to read and play and question the expectations placed on them. As readers, we want answers and a motive, just as the girls’ frustrated rescuers and parents do – and just as the women still do as adults, partially defined by an event they don’t understand, and that wasn’t as traumatic as perhaps it should have been. Or was it? There are stories within stories here. Both women’s recollections contain wrinkles that are hard to reconcile. There is a lengthy extract from Lost in the Woods; as fiction we should mistrust it, but is it really less reliable than fallible memories? When a creepy student identifies and harrasses Lois to tell him what happened (he is writing his own take on the case; he doesn’t believe her own), she invents the kind of salacious details he – and again, we as readers – might expect or even want to hear in such a story. The novel builds to the women meeting on the film set: a recreation of the cabin itself, along with the actors that will play them and Zed, where the story is about to be told again.
You could probably fill a library with books that have been compared to Gone Girl, but here the comparison is warranted, most obviously in the first-person narratives from the two women. Both are unique, complicated and difficult characters – prickly, not always likeable, but always interesting and believable – and you’re compelled to follow them as they navigate their unsatisfactory lives, their memories, and their journey towards some kind of reconciliation and resolution. Beautifully-written, surprising and psychologically complex, Pretty Is is one of the best and most original crime novels I’ve read in a long time.
Steve Mosby is a critically acclaimed author, whose latest novel, I Know Who Did It is out now. He was longlisted for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award and won the 2012 CWA Dagger in the Library, awarded for an author’s body of work. Follow Steve on Twitter and Facebook or visit his website for more information.