I don’t usually read police-themed thrillers, not least because I am easily horrified by the details of murders and other cruel crimes, and my vivid imagination is easily sent into overdrive, resulting in nightmares.
So it was with trepidation that I started reading C J Booth’s Olive Park. Why was I determined to give it a try, when it deals with horrific crimes? It wasn’t the fact that it had won awards that lured me, but a personal connection. I’d had the pleasure and privilege of meeting the author on the Homeric Writers’ Retreat in Ithaca this summer, where I was charmed by his wry wit and intellect, and also by his gentle-natured wife who is very supportive of his writing. How such a lovely guy could want to write about the grisly murder of three children was a mystery to me, until I finished reading this book.
Olive Park cleverly combines two apparently disparate story strands, until, like a pair of shoelaces running up parallel rows of holes, they come together in a perfect bow at the end. The first of these follows the removal of a teenage boy, known as M, and his innocent six-year-old sister Jessie from the home in which their parents have both been killed, to begin a new life with his father’s sister. She is taking them in only reluctantly until she can find a better alternative. Reluctantly because M killed her brother trying to defend his mother from a murderous attack.
Both traumatised children must now rebuild their lives in the dump of a trailer park in which the aunt has made her home. Add to the mix an unsuitable babysitter, the relic of an old touring circus, hired to mind them while their aunt goes out to work, and a politically-correct psychologist hired to help M, but far removed from his world, and the children’s onward journey feels doomed from the start.
Meanwhile Mallory, a feisty young civilian worker for the police department arrives unexpectedly as the unwanted assistant to two jaded detectives, Stan and Jake. She is to help them launch the new “cold case” division of the local force, tasked with investigating old unsolved crimes. Her energy, enthusiasm and sheer doggedness persuade first Stan, then Jake, to reopen the most challenging case that ever faced the force – a triple murder of three children, all killed in an especially sadistic manner, including, for two of them at least, being buried alive. Despite her lack of police training, Mallory discovers a new clue that drives all the team on to reinvestigate the case with new vigour.
Although for much of the book the two separate plot strands are not revealed, the author manages to spin both plates very well, engaging the reader with highly believable characters and dialogue. The reader is eased into the horror of the case by wry and witty descriptions and throw-away lines in the early part of the book, though these become less frequent as the link starts to emerge, the pace quickens and the tension and horror mount, right up to the skilful denouement, which, I have to say, contains deft and very rewarding touches. This is smart, highly controlled writing, perfectly timed.
While the subject matter is grim, the themes emerge as life-affirming. Troubled and damaged characters emerge stronger and indomitable after extraordinary trauma in their young lives. The author generates compassion not only for the victims but for all of those affected by the loss of the murdered children, as well as for the police who dedicate their careers to asserting justice for the perpetrators of such crime. The police, too, are victims.
By the time I turned the final page, I’d solved another mystery – the one with which I began reading the book: how a kind and gentle man could write a story about grisly murder, and the solution was underscored by the author’s touching after-note. Because this book isn’t actually all about grisly crimes – rather, it’s about the triumph of the human spirit over evil, and the incomparable power of love and compassion over cruelty and depravity. Messages don’t come any more important than that.