Judas Child by Carol O’Connell

judas childGreat… and not so great…

😀 😀 😀

When two children are abducted, at first it’s hoped that they’ve been kidnapped for ransom. But the crime is similar to another that was committed fifteen years earlier, resulting in the murder of a child and the imprisonment of a local priest. Now the police have to consider if the earlier investigation got the wrong man, and if the pattern repeats, they know that both little girls will be dead by Christmas.

There are bits of this book that are great and then there’s the rest which is… not so great. It gets off to an incredibly slow start. By a third of the way through there’s been no real investigation of any kind – just a ton of stuff about various child killings and a relentless concentration on the grief of all the parents and siblings of the victims. It manages the feat of being voyeuristic, rather tasteless and dull at the same time. Sub-plots abound but never actually go anywhere – I’m sure there’s something in there about corrupt politicians, the Mafia and truth-tests, but it’s so badly done, I had no idea what was going on with it or what purpose it served, except to pad the book out unnecessarily. I found it unlikely that the police would use the abduction of two young children as an excuse to mentally torture the mother of one of them to get information on corruption in local politics. But, assuming this to be the case, it makes it impossible for the reader to like the investigators, surely, and yet I think on the whole we’re supposed to.

The characterisation is fine, but every single character has a secret or a problem. Too much, too much! The FBI man who stalks his ex-girlfriend. The priest who’s struggling with his faith. The profiler who knows about dozens of unsolved child murders that no-one else ever seems to have heard of, and has a mysterious past of her own which is hinted at every time we meet her. The police officer haunted by the memory of the murder of his own twin sister (would he really be allowed on the case once a connection had been made between the two crimes? I doubt it). The headmaster who ‘buys’ gifted children for his school. The weak and pathetic fathers who can’t cope and the wise, strong mothers who can – I think Ms O’Connell’s feminist petticoat is showing. The tortured psychiatrist who everyone believes knows who is doing the killings, but won’t tell because it’s against his moral code – really? Too much!

But the book finally picks up when it goes to the missing girls – Gwen and Sadie. O’Connell’s characterisation of the children is excellent, although they feel two or three years older than the ten-year-olds they’re supposed to be. Sadie has always been the leader, with a streak of imaginative wickedness that leads her to play cruel tricks on people, such as pretending she is dead. But now her imagination is a useful tool in trying to find a way out of their desperate situation. Gwen is an interesting combination of weakness and strength – unlike Sadie, she knows her own limitations and gradually begins to put the brakes on Sadie’s wilder schemes. The power balance within their relationship shifts over the course of the book and this is done very well and believably. And at this stage of the book, the police are finally doing some proper investigatory work, so that side of it improves too. This whole central section is full of tension, even to the level of psychological horror at points, and very well written. And the pages fly as the girls’ story heads frantically to its thrillerish climax…

Carol O'Connell
Carol O’Connell

…which it’s important not to think too much about, or you might just notice that it’s silly. The thing is it doesn’t look silly at the time so it works brilliantly. But unfortunately the explanations that come after the climax stretch credulity way past breaking point – for this reader at least. It’s hard to say why without spoilers, but it’s not so much the twists that kill the credibility, but the fact that they make a nonsense of the sequence of earlier events. In fact, had one or two twists been left out this would have been a much better book. The shock value wears off quickly in the face of the tidying up O’Connell does at the end, giving too much time for the reader to recognise the problems they cause.

So, flawed and over complicated, but still a page-turner once past the slow start and worth reading for the excellent sections with Gwen and Sadie.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.

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50 thoughts on “Judas Child by Carol O’Connell

  1. Sounds like a bit of overkill. No pun intended. How does one purchase gifted children for a school?
    How do you manage to get through that sort of book?

    • Definitely! So many characters and sub-plots – just a distraction. Especially since you don’t know which ones are going to turn out to be relevant. Haha! It’s one of the reasons I usually have two or three books on the go at the same time – when I feel the need to stomp on one, I can just move to another for a while… 😉

  2. Just in case I show up as “Anonymous”, I am in fact “BigSister”!
    I’m sure I’ve tried and failed to read one of her books before. This one definitely is not for me. I don’t deal well with child abuse, and even less child killing, as fiction. I have to read too much of this stuff in real life to want it as entertainment, especially when its not very well done. As is so often the case, I fear your review is better than the book. 🙂

    • I don’t like her usual character, Mallory, but usually find her writing and plotting OK. So I tried this one because it’s Mallory-free, but I fear it had too many problems to envourage me to read more of her stuff! Good to see you back as BigSister, BUS! 🙂

  3. Hmmm….I think I might escape with TBR unscathed this time, FictionFan. I’m glad you found elements here that you thought were well done – I really am. But this one just isn’t for me, I’m afraid. Your review, on the other hand, is, as always, excellent 🙂

    • Thanks, Margot! Well, I won’t be twisting your arm to add this one – the sections on the girls were very good, but not enough to make up for the problems with the rest of it, including the voyeuristic feel of the early parts…

    • Me too, but I’d heard good things about this one so persevered. And the second half was definitely much better, but not enough really to make up for the rest.

    • Yes, it’s a pity because she writes well when she gets to the action sections, but not enough to make up for the problems with characterisation and plot – in my opinion!

      Thanks for popping in and commenting! 🙂

  4. Wonderful, thank you so much for being so astonishingly kind to my TBR. Smiles fondly at the pile, certain they are safe from replicating for today. Mind you, I have heard from an author and a publisher that a book is in the post/will be in the post to me, and I have just bought 1 used from a market place seller, and downloaded another. 4 added, all in one day. Not good. Or, very good, depending which way you look at it. Rain, for 40 days and 40 nights and an internet, though not a PC failure, would help. Preferably after the postman arrives with the 3 physical books coming my way

    I better turn on the Kindle internet fast to download the bought Kindle title.

    • I’ve surrendered in defeat. I haven’t finished a book for over a week and yet have added, I think, five in that time. And the French Open has started. Oh well. I’ll be safe from you too today since I’ve already read that one. Shall pop over soon and see what you thought of it…

      • Happy French Open, C’mon Rafa, C’mon Andy, all the way, then C’mon Andy! PS is it time to show Rafa’s shorts for summer? WHAT SUMMER I hear you cry.

        Wednesday’s is a DVD and I’m not yet sure whether the next one will be for Friday or for Monday, and I have a house brick of a non-fiction up next which I don’t THINK will make it’s way onto your TBR, particular as it was a very in advance of publication physical book from Vine, and won’t get onto VfA I think. I may be a safe site for a little while!

        • The problem with Rafa’s shorts is that I need a hook to hang them on… metaphorically speaking that is!

          I’m going to run out of reviews soon – a couple I can’t seem to get round to writing, and then the rest that I can’t seem to get round to reading. I may have to take up recycling…

          • What about a post all about SHORT stories, a sort of overview of short stories you have loved and hated, all illustrated by Rafa in various nether regions garments?

            Or you could do a series of Tennis themed blogs to educate, enlighten and entertain those who love the sport and those who just need a little bit of friendly encouragement. Books with short chapters to read at changeovers and rain breaks?

            • Ooh, I shall give that idea some thought!

              I must say that blog posts are great to read at end changes – just about the right length. I’ve been fitting them in around the Murray walkover this afternoon. Admittedly this means it’s taken me about 5 hours to get round!

  5. So this is not a Mallory book. I’ve yet to start that series, but kind of feel like I know what I’m in for with that character. Perhaps this one will go to the end of the line for this author. I do want to try her work though. Had one member of my mystery group that was a big fan and I kept promising I’d read one.

    • On the whole I like the Mallory books better, but unfortunately I just don’t like the Mallory character herself, which is a bit of a problem. She falls into the ‘damaged’ bracket, with the likes of Lisbeth Salander etc, and I don’t enjoy those characters as detectives, but it’s purely down to personal preference. If the character works for you, then certainly I think the writing and plotting make them well worth reading.

  6. I appreciate your fair-minded and intelligent reviews. I will say that I avoid novels like this assiduously. This book sounds like “Broadchurch,” at least the basic themes, which are that most men are bad and dangerous, and that essentially only the women have human value. Maybe that is a bit strong, but that is what watching “Broadchurch” felt like, until I abandoned it. There does seem to be a very unfortunate trend in so-called mystery literature, where there are now countless stories of child molestation and/or killing; violent predatory men stalking children or adults, and so on. I know that there are such people, but one would think from these stories that they are the norm.

    Independent of the sheer unpleasantness of these narratives, the anti-male bias in many of them even spoils the mystery aspect. With “Broadchurch,” (so-called “spoiler alert” here), I very confidently eliminated every woman as a suspect, plus the one Black character, and the vicar (very unlikely that TV is going to make the sole ethnic minority, or a man of faith, the murderer of a young boy), thus leaving only three possibilities, one of which (the father) I discounted. And this was from the very outset. Agatha or PD James wrote mysteries which had an even-handed and perceptive view of human nature, and thus anyone might be the murderer. It seems that in so many of the current stories, there is a kind of luridness and social bias which is passing under the rubric of “realism.” People seem to gravitate to these stories, though.

    I just received my copy of “Fallen Land,” and will read it next. And a number of Philip Roth novels also came. I empathize with your inability to finish a book right now; of course you read many, but part of it is that there are so few really good books, which are both well written and engrossing. If you want a couple that I pretty much guarantee you won’t put down, try Philip Dick’s “Ubik,” which I already recommended, or another book by him, “Time Out of Joint.” Just don’t read anything on the back cover, or about the books in advance; and remember that the latter book was written in 1957 or so. Or Shaw’s “The Young Lions,” if you do not mind some realistic war scenes, as the book is about three men involved in WWII. Or have you ever read Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker,” or Barry Unsworth’s “Morality Play?” Here I am recommending books to you; I’m sure you’ve got plenty of your own!

    • Thanks, William! I’ve always been a fan of crime novels and thrillers so I stick with them despite feeling that the genre has changed a lot, and not in ways that I like. So my reviews of them these day tend to be a bit grumbly. I don’t really believe that most people prefer graphic, gruesome violence, constant foul language and inordinately detailed descriptions of sexual encounters – the huge growth in the market for ‘cosies’ suggest a lot of people feel the way I do about gratuitousness and voyeurism. But I’m always looking for ones that fall between – strong plots but written with a modicum of restraint.

      As far as the representation of men in crime novels, and even in some lit-fic, goes, I couldn’t agree with you more, and frequently rant about that in reviews too. Back in the dark ages when I was a girl, feminism was about trying to get women opportunties to be paid the same for doing the same work, or to make decisions about their own lives. Now it seems to have morphed into trying to prove that women are vastly superior to men in every way – about as likely as the reverse. So all men must either be feckless or vile. It’s totally unrealistic in a ‘real life’ sense and makes for cheap, tacky characterisation in a ‘fictional’ sense. And frankly, with my old fogey hat on, I feel sorry for young men being constantly faced with such negative images – just as the negative images of women in much classic fiction annoyed me back in the day. I long for us to reach the stage of post-feminism, when we can just accept that we’re basically all people – some bad, but mostly good. And that accepting that women and men might have different strengths and characteristics is OK. I think I’m in the dangerous position of being a sexist feminist! I’ll be drummed out of the sisterhood soon… 😉

      I’ll look into your recommendations – always welcome. Thank you! And I really hope you enjoy Fallen Land – please let me know what you think of it. Do you review on Goodreads? My reading slump at this time of the year is primarily due to excessive tennis watching – extends from the French Open through to the end of Wimbledon, and then I get my reading time back!

      • I am very impressed with both the intelligence of your reviews, and your fair-mindedness. And without going on a long discourse about it, I think that “political/social correctness,” however one defines that, is not only constricting in itself, it threatens to leach the color and the complexity out of art. Depth and even ambiguity can add a great deal to a novel, or any work of art. And I don’t think that I am being oversensitive to this, but it is just palpable in an increasing number of works: this general exaltation of women and derogation of men.

        I have always liked stories in which there were gradations in character; some more ideal characters to admire, and then some more flawed, to ponder about. If all the female characters are good, and all the men are bad (to put it very simplistically), I feel like I’m being lectured to, or that the author has such a one-sided view of things, that I have no interest in what he or she has to say about anything else. It is interesting that some male or even female writers who have the temerity to occasionally create a somewhat negative female character, are often immediately branded with the term of “misogynist,” as if to discourage them from ever doing it again, or to try to put a negative stamp on their work, to prevent others from reading it. At such a point, literature ceases to be literature, and becomes a dreary kind of dogmatic tool, as in the Morality Plays of the Middle Ages.

        I have never written a review for Goodreads. I haven’t visited it that often. Obviously, the quality of analysis there varies widely. After just reading “American Pastoral,” the best novel I have read in quite some time, I wanted to see some reviews of it. I thought that yours was absolutely the most thoughtful, empathic and well written one there, which actually brought me to visit your enjoyable site.

        • I must say I do think there has been a rise in misogynistic writing too over the last couple of decades. Somehow in the attempt to meet the demand for ‘strong’ female characters, some authors of either gender seem to feel the need to make their female characters behave appallingly, and unfortunately the way they normally do that is by using female sexuality and portraying it in its most negative light. The contrast of course is when they show women as so emotionally weak that they can’t cope with the stuff that the males take in their stride. I must say again that crime fiction is the worst for this – but I have accused both JM Coetzee and Ian McEwan of misogynistic portrayals of women in their last books, though with Coetzee I wasn’t entirely sure that he wasn’t doing it intentionally to make a point. There seems to be a difficulty in portraying women as both ‘strong’ and ‘feminine’, and so often female characters are defined entirely by their sexuality in a way that almost never happens with male characters.

          Actually though I think the negative portrayal of both men and women is due as much to laziness as sexism in either direction – someone starts a trend and sells a book so suddenly every character is shoved into that mould, without nuance. We all laugh in the blogosphere about every book being marketed as ‘the next Gone Girl’, but it’s a real effect. You only have to look at the rise of autistic characters over the last decade to see authors slavishly following fashion, not to mention that all fantasies must be a trilogy…

          Well, thank you! And I’m glad you did pop through to the blog! As you’ll have seen, it’s filled with a lot of nonsense as well as more serious reviews, but – cue cliché – variety is the spice of life!

  7. Sorry, but I’m going to pass on this one. You’ve done a great job with the review, but it just doesn’t sound like a premise I want to delve into — certainly not something I’d voluntarily immerse myself into!

    • I must admit that, though there were good bits in this, I did feel that some of it was too voyeuristic, especially about the grief of parents of missing children. It seems to be an unfortunate trend in crime writing at the moment – oh, for the good old day of clues and a nice ‘clean’ murder done for love or money… 😉

  8. Interesting, FF. I remember this book from years ago as one of the most genuinely frightening books I’ve ever read. I remember none of the flaws you note, only the characters, Sadie and Gwen, and their extraordinary story. I wonder whether I’d feel the same reading it now, years after becoming a crime writer myself.

    BTW, are you a fan of Carol O’Connell’s Kit Mallory books? I’ve always thought she is underrated as a writer.

    • Sorry, just saw from the comments that you’re not a Mallory fan. I like her! And I reckon O’Connell’s role in pioneering a damaged and difficult female protagonist in crime writing remains largely unsung.

    • The bits with Sadie and Gwen are really well written and yes, definitely scary – and also quite moving in parts. I’ve always admired O’Connell’s writing, and I agree that Mallory was one of the first of these damaged female leads. Unfortunately, I’m not keen on damaged maverick police detectives of either gender much – just personal preference. But overall I think the Mallory books are better structured and plotted than this one was – perhaps that’s just something she’s mastered with experience. Because of my antipathy to Mallory, I’d really love to see her use her undoubted skills to do more standalones or even a different series…

    • Thanks, Rose! 🙂 Yes, this isn’t one I’ll be pushing on people – there was good stuff in it but overall there’re are better books out there…

  9. Best sentence ever: “…which it’s important not to think too much about, or you might just notice that it’s silly.” Sometimes, one just has to like a book like that. They’re fun.

    And sorry I’m late. Very odd day yesterday was.

        • Goodness! A word with a ‘z’ in it that I would spell with a ‘z’ too! I think that’s a first! Well done, America – keep this up and you’ll be zpelling all zorts of words properly zoon.

          Duelling pirates? Hunting bears? Whitewater rafting? Rolling downhill in a barrel?

          • *laughing* We like z’s when they’re used properly. They should also be treated respectfully, and not used too often.

            Whitewater rafting! Now that is something. I’ve never done it…but that’s something I might try some day.

            • They should be kept in zoos, beside the zebras. And they should always be called Zeds…

              *simmers* Tell me what you did, sir, or I shall smite you! (That’s my new favourite word…)

            • OK, let me just check – Professor VJ Tash Arch Zed Chicky-Woot-Woot Duke. Have I forgotten any? *laughs* That makes you sound worryingly Thark-like – but I think I’m highly honoured. Should I be?

              Well, just be careful, because I’m doing smiting practice every morning… Ooh! Were you Brady or Wilfork? Better not have been wearing an Edelman. Did you win?

            • Tash! I’d forgotten about that one. I think Cor was on the list at some point. You should be honored. That was my Tars impersonation.

              I was actually in the Edelman position. I’m not sure if I won, or not. The professor was quite tired at the end of it.

            • Hmm… I don’t remember Cor, who’s he? Unless you mean Cor Blimey – that’d be a great name! Then I am! *smiles proudly* Were you 14-feet tall when you did it?

              *laughs so much* How can you not be sure?! We need to work on your competitive spirit, you know, you know… urgently!

            • Cor is that chap in Horse and His Boy…which you’ll be listening to soon. No…but I did have four arms!

              *laughs* You do have a good point there. Running is so tiring–just so you know.

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