Book review: Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain

Dirty Little Secrets - Jo Spain *****

One thing you can be sure of in a Jo Spain novel is indeed the uncovering of dirty little secrets, although in her DI Tom Reynolds series the guilty secrets are more likely to be not so little, often revealing a dark side to Irish history and society that has been long kept hidden. Spain's second standalone novel (after the thrilling The Confession) gives the author the opportunity to delve into other perhaps more familiar and universally recognisable human motivations that give rise to crime in Dirty Little Secrets, but of course Jo Spain has her own very distinctive take on the subject that opens up other issues related to living in a small isolated community.

So many in fact that - like any good crime thriller - there are any number of possible suspects who may have killed Olive Collins. There are only six houses in the exclusive Withered Vale gated community in Wicklow, but it's taken 3 months for any of the neighbours to notice that Olive has been lying dead and decomposing in No.4. Not only that but there are signs of suspicious activity around her death, and as police detectives Frank Brazil and Emma Child start to question the neightbours about Olive, they find that potentially any one of them might have had the motive and opportunity and maybe even good reason to murder her.

There's not anything particularly new about that kind of whodunit, and Jo Spain has proved to be able to point the finger of suspicion on any number of potential killers before in her previous books only to completely blindside the reader with terrific twists. What the author has here however that she doesn't have so much in her Tom Reynolds books is a greater multiplicity of views, a greater diversity of character, race and personality and associated attitudes that have been fostered in the society they live in; a very closed society that thrives on gossip and is always on the lookout for scandal from outsiders who don't fit in with their narrow views and moral outlook.

Withered Vale is very much that kind of society in the much more manageable form of six families; a closed community, a watching and observing community, a judgemental one that is quick to act out its own form of social justice. To fit in and not be ostracised means you must not draw attention to your differences; any expression of individuality must be suppressed, which means people inevitably keep aspects of their lives secret, and sometimes with good reason. When you have people keeping secrets however, they can develop into a mass of contradictions and you usually find there is someone like Olive Collins ready to poke their nose into what dirty little secrets are being hidden by them.

Frank and Emma's investigation into Withered Vale gradually uncovers the latent tensions between its residents and even the potential homicidal urges they might have had towards a busybody like Olive poking around in backgrounds that they'd rather keep quiet about. It's a classic Agatha Christie situation mixed Jo Spain's usual pertinent observations on Irish people and society, but Spain has another little twist or two to offer in Dirty Little Secrets. One is that the police detectives Frank and Emma have their own little secret histories, and the other is that so too does Olive, who even though dead reveals her own view of her involvement in the lives of each of characters that have lead to her demise.

Needless to say, with gradual revelations about other people's lives, their peculiarities and the secrets they might be keeping, as well as the suspicion falling first on one person then another as to who is most likely to commit murder, Jo Spain once again provides an addictive thriller that is thoughtful and well-observed in its social and character detail.

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