Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

little black liesMore dead children…

🙂 🙂 😐

It’s three years since Catrin’s two sons were killed in a tragic accident – the result of a moment of carelessness by her best friend, Rachel. Catrin can’t forgive her and as the anniversary of the deaths approaches it seems as if she might be about to commit some drastic action. But meantime a toddler has gone missing – a rare occurrence in the sparsely populated Falklands Islands, but not unique. Two other children have disappeared in recent years and some people are beginning to wonder if they are linked. Despite her troubled state of mind, Catrin gets drawn into the search for the little boy…

This book gets off to a brilliant start. Bolton is always readable – a born storyteller. Her description of the harsh, bleak environment of the Falklands ten years after the war between Britain and Argentina creates an atmosphere ripe for tales of dread. And her characterisation of Catrin is great – this damaged, grief-stricken mother haunted by her dead sons and burning with the desire for revenge. As the book begins, Catrin is out in a boat at night and Bolton wonderfully contrasts the beauty of the stars reflecting in the water with the dangers of the unpredictable sea and the cold cruelty of Catrin’s thoughts. A truly atmospheric beginning.

Unfortunately, a great beginning doesn’t always make a great book. First off, I am heartily tired of every second crime book focussing on the murder and/or abuse of children. By all means, if an author is making a serious point about some aspect of society or the justice system, but not when it’s just for entertainment, as so many of them are, including this one. It’s not a subject that I find remotely entertaining. And as usual with these trends each new book feels it has to up the ante in order to harrow us just a little bit more than the last. I find it all a little sickening. So I admit that Bolton was always going to have to work extra hard to win me over. But, even putting my prejudice to one side, there are a couple of other aspects that left me feeling this book doesn’t reach Bolton’s usual standards.

Shipwrecks off the coast of the Falklands
Shipwrecks off the coast of the Falklands

The book is told in three voices – first Catrin’s, then Callum’s and finally Rachel’s. Callum is an ex-soldier who fought in the Falklands war and has now returned to live in the islands to try to overcome his demons. His voice and character didn’t ring true for me at all, I’m afraid. While it’s obviously true that some soldiers are left mentally scarred by their experiences, it’s become a stereotype now to have every ex-serviceman struggling with PTSD and so haunted by his experiences he is incapable of functioning normally. And I felt we had enough misery to contend with in Catrin’s grief without the need to relive Callum’s war experiences too. Especially since, in the third part, we also have to relive Rachel’s guilt along with her.

But it’s less that than the way Bolton portrays Callum’s maleness that bothers me. He thinks about women’s bodies all the time, seeing each purely in terms of her sexual attractiveness or lack of it, and fantasises about ‘shagging’ every woman he meets. He makes sexist remarks. He swears a lot. But the reader is supposed to be on his side, and to believe that intelligent women find him attractive. It all seemed a very lazy way to create a ‘male’ voice – again a stereotype and a pretty negative one at that.

Rachel’s voice didn’t fare much better for me either. Wracked with guilt, she is apparently dysfunctional to the point of borderline neglect of her children, but seems too self-aware of her own failings – almost wryly humorous about them at times. I found her unconvincing.

It’s pretty tasteless too, not only about the children, but there’s a particularly graphic and unnecessary whale scene that’s not for the squeamish either, and feels as if it’s only in there to harrow the reader still further – as if dead children aren’t enough. And the plot, which starts out brilliantly, eventually spirals downwards to a degree that stretches credulity so far as to become almost ridiculous. One unbelievable event follows another, then another, and so on, with the eventual equally unbelievable solution tacked on almost as an afterthought. The climax of the investigation in fact reads almost like a humorous farce – totally out of place given the subject matter. The book is still very readable for the most part – the quality and flow of Bolton’s writing, the sense of place and the first section in Catrin’s voice are all excellent, hence my rather generous 2½-star rating. But ultimately I found the flaws in this one outweighed its strengths.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

65 thoughts on “Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

  1. I know exactly what you mean, FictionFan, about stories that focus on dead/abused/missing children. I really hope it doesn’t become, dare I say it, a trend. I get my fill of it; I really do. I must say the setting and context for this one is appealing – very appealing. And you’re right that Bolton can tell a story. But I may wait on this one…

    • I feel as if it already has become a trend. Looking back, I’ve read eight new releases this year alone with dead or abused children as a plot point (out of 20 new crime releases in total), and I’ve also refused several others for review. And of those eight, I’d say only a couple handled it sensitively as part of a serious look at society – the rest were all ‘entertainment’. I wouldn’t have taken this one based on the blurb, except that I do love Bolton’s writing. But I should have resisted…

  2. Gosh, even the reading the review had me reaching for the razor blades (not a reflection on your excellent reviewing skills of course, FF) and surely not more dead children!! Sounds like a cliche too far for me. Now I have to lift my mood by finding something nice to eat. So it’s not all bad!

  3. *laughs* What a tale of…dread! Hopefully the sun shines. Or something happy. Like a turtle walking across a boardwalk, or something!

    Now, those ships there have me wondering. Why were they wrecked, for instance? Was it a boat battle? Possibly.

    I wonder, too, if Sharon is related to Michael. It’s a thought I’ve had all the way through.

    • Something happy happens – the book ends! *chuckles bitterly*

      I think some of them are ships that were torpedoed during the Falklands War (which you might call the Malvinas War possibly). Britain v Argentina in the 1980s – we won, at great cost in ships and lives on both sides. But I got the impression it’s a dangerous place for shipping generally and some of them just got caught on rocks. Don’t know why they get left there though – too difficult to break them up maybe?

      *laughs lots* You’ve made me realise I’ve forgotten to put up an author pic, but I’m delighted to say she has a much better hairdo…

      • It must be horrid! You should’ve given it half a smiley!

        Or maybe they’re secret hideouts now! It’s a possibility, after all. Ahh, I see. Thank you for that bit of history. I know of the Falklands War because of Jethro Tull, believe it or not.

        I was going to pick on you for forgetting. But does she have a better voice?

        • I feared I would be lynched by the pro-misery faction!

          Funny you should say that… Did Jethro Tull do a song about it then?

          *laughs* I don’t know, and I don’t feel she’d be willing to sing for me this week…

            • You should do it for me! Less chance of accidents…

              Because in the book… Well, that started out OK. And then he started “singing”… (Your encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient music baffles me, you know, you know…) To be fair, the singing has improved as it’s gone on.

            • Okay…if I get my beanie!!

              Aha! (I’ll explain it to you someday if you want. There’s a logical reason, I promise.) You’re rather familiar with lots of music yourself!

            • Goodness! I have to provide bribes to get your help now!!! *battles them herself and wins gloriously*

              (Only if you want to!) Nah, really not. Just dip in and out – a very superficial music listener, me. Always have been. Just seems like a lot ‘cos I’ve been 21 for a few years now.

            • Wow! *impressed* Now, do I get the beanie as a reward?

              (My mom and dad have such different musical tastes. Growing up, I got to hear lots of different stuff. Still do! Plus, I’m so old.) *laughing* Dip in and out…that’s such a good way to be, though.

            • I’m not at all sure why you would think you deserve a reward…?

              (Aha! My mum wasn’t really into music though she was always singing around the house, but my dad forcefed me Perry Como and Frank Sinatra and all the crooners of that era. And I still love them…) Fickle!

  4. Hmmm…so you didn’t care for this book, right? No, that’s fine. I totally understand that not every book speaks to every reader. And you brought up some good points. I have also read very enthusiastic reviews of Little Black Lies and heard some say that this is her best work yet. Guess I need to finally pick this up and see what I think. I’ve been kind of holding back on it, keeping it in reserve until I hear what she’s writing next. I concur that some themes seem to repeat over and over with writers and one can get quite tired of them. I also think that sometimes we, as readers, just have our fill of certain types of books. Sounds like you’ve hit your limit on dark crime novels, at least for now. 🙂

    • Haha! How did you guess? I honestly can’t see how anybody could think this is her best – my prejudice against dead children as entertainment aside, the plotting is sloppy, which is not something I’ve ever found in any of her books before. Her descriptive writing is just as brilliant as always though – very atmospheric. I’ve definitely had my fill of the way crime’s going at the moment – I’m so tired of the bandwagon effect that sweeps through the genre, and this year’s trends – alcoholics, first person misery monologues and dead kids – really do nothing for me. Unfortunately I still have a few to review, then I’m off all contemporary crime till this phase passes. Historical and cosies will do meantime. But as to dark, the best crime book I’ve read this year is also the darkest by miles – You by Zoran Drvenkar. But it’s also brilliantly written, original, great characterisation and well plotted. Which works for me! 🙂

  5. It is a good review, FF. I can read dark stories to a point. But if a book (or movie) does not have a certain amount off redemptive value, I cannot like it. I’m not saying all books should be sunshine an roses. I must mean that I need at least a drop or two of hope. Or maybe a single flower that survived a rugged blizzard.

    • Thanks, Susan! 🙂 There is a bit of redemption in this, but it’s clouded over by the silliest twist at the end, and anyway I didn’t find the redemption aspect convincing. I totally agree – unremittingly bleak just doesn’t work for me. And that seems to be the way it’s going at the moment in a lot of crime fiction.

  6. Well, FF, thanks once again for saving me the time and money of reading something! This sounds pretty dreadful overall. It’s hard to imagine even brilliant writing compensating for a poor storyline and an unsatisfying ending!

    • I’m just out of sync with contemporary crime writing at the moment – as soon as I’ve finished the last remaining few that I’ve taken for review I’ll be taking a break and moving on to historical crime and cosies for a while. This phase will pass eventually… *crosses fingers* I must say I still think Bolton’s a great writer though, and will still be eagerly awaiting her next one. I’ll read the blurb a bit more carefully though…

    • I wish I’d read the blurb more carefully and I’d probably have known it wouldn’t be for me, but she’s such a great writer I’m just used to grabbing her books as soon as they appear. Next time I’ll wait for some reviews to get a better feel for the subject matter…

  7. Confession: I love when you pick apart a book and expose all its dreadful cliches and trends — murdered children, lazy, sexist male voice, PTSD, etc. Nothing gets by FF! Perhaps this would have been better if it was intentionally a humorous farce…

    • Haha! Thanks! 🙂 I feel as if I’ve been doing it too much recently, though! Must take a break from contemporary crime – our relationship is clearly going through a bad patch! But we’ll get back together sooner or later – we always do! Generally Bolton’s good at getting the humour content right, but in this one the farcical feel at the end just didn’t sit well with the storyline.

  8. Oh heavens. It’s pile them high on dead children then, is it now, now that the dismemberment of beautiful women has been overdone to death. I don’t think this will be coming to a TBR pile near me anytime soon. Or indeed anytime later. I wonder what’s going to be the next must have murder fashion scenario.

    Mind you, I’ve nearly finished reading an old Alison Weir title, The Lady In The Tower, a brilliant scholarly analysis of the events of the last few months of Anne Boleyn’s life, and though it is excellently researched, and extremely coolly and ungratuitously written, it’s given me much more of a sense of rising anxiety than many fictions. Even though we all know, pretty well, who did it, and pretty well why.

    • Yep! And I can’t take any more of it! I’m as tired of writing negative reviews as everyone else must be of reading them. However only a few more in the review pile and I’m done with contemporary crime till the trend shifts – plenty of other stuff to be reading… or re-reading! It’s a real sign of how much I’m off this type of book that I haven’t been finding the slightest temptation to request any from NG for several weeks now – all my requests have been for factual, ‘proper’ fiction or cosies.

      I’m sure Jilanne recommended that one ages ago. I’ve only read one Alison Weir book, but it was about Henry VII’s wife or somebody (my memory’s dreadful!) and not enough was known about her to make a decent bio. I shall look forward to your review of this one – I’ve always had a soft spot for Anne Boleyn…

      • I suspect my review will end up (a 5 star for sure) being far more of an account of what it made me think about, and the difficulties of historians when information goes awol and everyone who was around at the time gives wildly divergent accounts of what so and so said eg what did Anne say as her final speech just before the swordsman did the fell deed. With no smartphones, no videocams, no recording devices, and perhaps as useful, but rather more lo-tec, no system of taking shorthand – not to mention no microphones its fascinating looking at all the versions reported AT THE TIME of what she said, but the people who had gathered to watch the horrible event. And then there will no doubt be more of a riff about totalitarian societies, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and all the rest than the kind of review someone who might want who is looking for a scholarly review of a scholarly book.

        Talking of Jilanne – I hope she’s okay and just busy writing or summer holidaying deep in the wilds, spotting bears and cougars (from a safe distance). She hasn’t been around for some time……

        • Well, that’ll be more interesting than a boring recounting of the history! You wouldn’t like to write my Nixon review would you? I can’t seem to get it down to less than 2000 words – must rethink my whole approach!

          Jilanne had a writing school and then was going straight to her holiday in Maine. But I was thinking myself a couple of days ago that it’s been a while even so. I decided not to start worrying till the schools go back, though – they’re probably just spending as much family time as poss.

          • And she’s back, as she has left a comment on my Jazzbook review She must have had burning virtual ears.

            Well, I fear my review of the Weir may be similarly verbose and merely a recounting about the different ways of looking at history which she made me think about, not to mention something about the different ways in which her book seems to be speaking to people.

            Re the 2000 word stuff – I’m also similarly struggling, and have been for some weeks, with another non-fiction book about Positive Psychology, written by an expert in the field, and I’m running off into all sorts of tangential areas.

            Perhaps the only solution is to produce books which review books and can then generate reviews about the reviews of books (also neatly gathered into book form) by other reviewers. And so it continues…..and at some point the novelists start writing books which review the books about the reviews of books books, being deeply critical about the authorial voices of the reviewers, the absence of narrative drive and all the rest…………..

            • Hurrah! Yes – great timing! We can call off the dogs now…

              My problem is that I find I’m recounting the history rather than reviewing the book. I do that quite often deliberately when I think it’s a bit of history people might not know about, but most people will know enough about Nixon to make it unnecessary – but I just can’t keep it OUT!!! Back to the drawing-board…

              Some of the comments you get on history reviews on Az US are like reviews of the reviews and sometimes longer than the original review. The Stonewall Jackson comment thread is running at 40 comments now and must be the length of a novella. I gave up even reading them months ago!

            • And thank you dear Fiction Fan, GAN Queen and heavy tome analyser fot your practical enlightenment into a blue tooth world. I shall be turning to your sage advice in due course

            • I haven’t surrendered and bought yet, I need to get behind the music centre and see what sockets I have that aren’t all engaged with conversions to from TV and blu-ray . A major tech thing shall speak peace unto tech thing once we get the right mediating thing in place might need examining!

  9. A great review as always – like you I didn’t think this was the author’s best effort but I do enjoy her writing – I think only Peter May was able to create a proper feeling of place and atmosphere of somewhere I haven’t visited, in such a way that I was truly able to recreate it in my mind’s eye the way she does in this one. I totally agree with you re the whales though, it just seemed a step (or few) too far!

    • Thanks, Cleo! 😀 Yes, I agree – May’s ability to create a sense of place is the main thing I like about him, and Bolton matched him here. Her writing’s always great, but the plot and characterisation of this one just didn’t work for me. But I know it’s partly because I’m fed up with current crime anyway. The whale thing was over the top, and funnily enough just before this one I’d read another book set in the Faroes, also with a whale slaughter – I’m beginning to think they’re ganging up on me! 😉 I’ll still be waiting impatiently for Bolton’s next one though…

  10. I very much agree with you about this repulsive theme in “crime” books. I am not nearly as patient as you with it; I will not read any book or watch any show which has this as its theme. Yes, children are sometimes abused, and sometimes killed, and it is a horrible thing. But it is not nearly that prevalent, certainly not the latter; and yet it seems to be pervasive in “mysteries” now.

    It is my sense that much of this theme comes from a derogation, sometimes a hatred, of men and maleness, from some of these authors. I include male authors in this, as the creator of “Broadchurch” was a man; and that show featured every anti-male stereotype imaginable. And as you note, in this book the primary male character is unappealing. I would bet a good deal of money that the killer is a man. I mentioned once that I solved the mystery on Broadchurch simply by eliminating every woman as as a suspect, plus the one Black man, and that easily got it down to two, and I picked the less obvious, and voila. But of course, that wasn’t the point of the series, solving the mystery, although it was intended to be the hook to get them to start watching it.

    I don’t know to what extent this book is guilty of that ongoing attempt to portray the average man as unpleasant at best; brutal and even murderous at worst. But I am sure that many of these books are. Of course, the writers say, or maybe even convince themselves, that they are dealing with the human side of things, not just writing an engaging mystery. But they are not nearly as humane as they think they are; they often cannot write male characters except as unpleasant stereotypes. And that, combined with the awfulness of having to read about the abuse or murder of a young child, makes such books absolutely unacceptable for me.

    • To be honest, I’ve pretty much reached that stage myself. But you tend to get review copies anything up to about three months in advance so I’ve still had a few to get through. Nearly done now and I’ve been making sure I don’t request any more ‘dead baby’ books.

      I agree there’s a real problem with the way men are being depicted in crime novels – and indeed in society – at the moment. I suppose partly it’s a backlash of skewed feminism, and partly rises out of all these real life scandals we’ve been hearing about over the last few years. But the news always gives a skewed view even when they don’t mean to. They never start a report with “16 men were found guilty of grooming children online, and the other 150 million weren’t”. So gradually a feeling builds up that all men must be guilty and crime fiction jumps on the hideous bandwagon, which then loops back in and feeds the whole cycle again. To me it feels like another abuse of the real victims to use their stories as entertainment. We’ve reached the ridiculous stage that one of our dead Prime Ministers is now being accused – maybe it’s true, how could I possibly know, but it all adds to the feeling that everyone is either an abuser or abused. It’s deeply unhealthy for society I think, and it leaves men in a position of almost having to prove their innocence if they want to work with kids. Crazy – we’re almost at the point of excluding men from childrens’ lives, and as someone who worked with boys with behavioural difficulties I am very well aware of the importance of male adults in the lives of children, especially boys.

      I must admit women don’t fare much better in crime fiction – they’re either consumed with uncontrollable desire for totally unsuitable but alpha men or they too are murdering their children! I fear crime fiction has just all become a bit sleazy – too easy to make everything morally corrupt and call it noir. But in real noir there was always a moral aspect buried in there somewhere – we seem to have lost that.

      Just to clarify for anyone who might read this, since I’ve gone off on my hobby horse, this particular book is about child deaths, not sexual abuse. Not sure that makes it better though!

      • Very well said; and appreciated! Before I leave this unpleasant topic, I will say that I read that a British airlines had a policy that no male passenger could be seated next to any child, even if the child’s parents were on the plane. The man would have to change his seat, or leave the plane. The obvious message to everyone, including the children, is that no man can be trusted in this regard. That was never the message of thirty or forty years ago, and I doubt that the statistics were an iota higher then.

        Now as to the more interesting topic of why the crime novels are replete with this, my opinion is that it is a combination of the hatred and stereotyping of males in some quarters, and then a kind of laziness among the crime writers who cannot think of a complex mystery plot, so settle for this “easier” kind of story. And I also agree that there is a sleaziness which permeates these; at least an atmosphere which makes all the characters unlikeable, and either corrupt or tawdry. I never have minded a hard-boiled crime tale involving some sleazy people; but it seems to me (and I have read a lot fewer of these current ones than you), that there is now an atmosphere of unpleasantness which permeates the novels; a sort of journey into the land of the damned. I started one of George Pelecanos’ mysteries several years ago, and I found it so much like that, that I put it down. I like when Marlowe or Archer go into the seedy side of town at times, but there is always a moral center to ground the novel. These stories seem to be depicting a world where there is no moral center. And yes, a very good point about these novelists thinking that they are creating a noir novel or film just by depicting a bunch of corrupt or twisted people.

        Speaking briefly of noir, if you or any of the readers here have never seen the film “Out of the Past,” it is in my opinion the greatest noir film of all time, and the essence of what makes great noir sublime. The novel on which is is based, “Build My Gallows High,” is good, too; but the movie is wonderful.

        • When I was a kid, we were specifically told that if we got lost or in trouble we should ask an adult for help. Now it’s the reverse. Mind you, kids are hardly ever allowed out without adult supervision now at all.

          I do think a lot of it is laziness, and also just that there are so many books on the market now. It can be hard to find the good ones amongst the… less good, shall we say! That’s why I hate the attitude that prevails of everyone praising every book. It’s not a particularly popular viewpoint, but I reckon if reviews serve any purpose it should be to give readers the chance to decide whether a book will suit them before buying. I hate reviews that just say ‘this book’s rubbish’! But if a reviewer says why s/he didn’t like it, then I can make an informed decision as to whether those things will also bother me – or not. I don’t expect people to either read or avoid books on my say-so, but I do hope to give them a feel for what the book will be like. Uncritical “this is great” reviews never inspire me to read a book either – I need to know the reasons. If it’s great because there’s loads of violence, bad langauge and a massive shoot-out at the end with loads of gore and body-parts, then it might be great, but I still won’t want to read it!

          I didn’t recognise the name “Out of the Past” at all but “Build My Gallows High” rang bells. It was apparently released under that title in the UK. For some reason, I don’t think I’ve seen it, but I’ll look out for it – thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

  11. I did like the writing….atmospheric and very visual but I guessed the villain. Hope you find something wonderful on your TBR list soon….what can I suggest?? Do you like Linda Fairstein – she has a new one out, Val McDermid has a new one(I will read soon) , Nicci Fench’s new one is good, not crime but My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologies is good….can recommend some great cook books 🙂

    • Her writing is always great and her descriptions of the Falklands in particular were brilliant. But the rest… oh well, I’ll still be looking forward to her next one. I’m reading a really good historical crime at the moment, so that’s cheered me up a bit! I don’t know Linda Fairstein – will check. The new McDermid is a Tony Hill and I’ve kinda given up on them though I still enjoy her standalones and her new Karen Pirie series – so far…

      • Linda Fairstein writes a kind of legal procedural – she is an ex US DA I think from memory – I have read just about everyone in this series – I like her style and writing. I’ll let you know about the McDermid. I have read a couple of Aust historical crime and I was surprised at how good there were – I don’t usually read too much by the way of historical anything.

        • I always enjoy historical crime, when it’s done well, and yet I don’t read much of it. I’m going to try to change that while I’m avoiding today’s misery-fests. Somehoe historical crime always tends to follow the more traditional type of crime novel that I like better.

  12. I have only read one Bolton, but have to completely agree: she is readable. As for the dead children, I’m glad it didn’t put you off. Maybe you should try Sarah Hilary’s No Other Darkness. I think she is better than Bolton, but have some – good – things in common.

  13. Sounds like a very fair review – it’s difficult when it’s a review copy and I think you’ve done well to point out exactly why you had problems with it and mention good points, too.

    • Thank you! I try not to let getting books free influence my reviews, but it can be hard, especially when a book is from a favourite author, as Sharon Bolton is of mine.

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