In 1986 two girls, Bel and Jade, achieved international infamy at age eleven for murdering a four-year-old girl. Twenty five years later, the now-grown up and rehabilitated women are back in society, living under new identities given to them by the British government. They haven't seen each other since their trials, and in fact are forbidden from communicating with each other under threat of being locked up again.
The Wicked Girls, by Alex Marwood (a British journalist writing under a pseudonym), is a riveting psychological thriller that jumps back and forth between the events on the day of the child's death, and the present-day lives of Kirsty and Amber (the new names of Bel and Jade). Amber is a low-level supervisor of a graveyard shift cleaning crew at Funnland, a seedy beachside amusement park in England. Kirsty is a journalist who lives an upper middle class lifestyle with a banker husband and two children. But her husband lost his job some months ago, and their income is now a lot less than their outgo. The alternating chapters are told from each woman's point of view, and the striking differences between their ways of life and even their appearance (Amber looks haggard and ten years older than Kirsty) is a mystery.
Neither woman has told anyone their horrible secret, not even their husbands. They are correct in thinking that no one would forgive them for what they had been accused of doing.
The story kicks into gear when a string of grisly murders take place in and around Funnland. Amber discovers two of them, with the result of putting her true identity at risk. As coincidence would have it, Kirsty is assigned by her paper to cover the murders. She runs into Amber and, knowing that they could be imprisoned again, the two begin communicating, partly because they have no one else to talk to about their past.
As events unfold, the women's past catches up with them, threatening to blow their cover. The consequences are unthinkable. How do you explain to your husband and children that you murdered a child when you were eleven?
The chapters that cover the day of the murder are printed in italics, and whenever I got to them, I braced myself, because I don't like reading about kids getting hurt or killed. I read these chapters quickly, and was relieved to reach the end of each one and resume the present-day storyline, which is fast-moving and filled with surprising twists and colorful characters.
As you might guess, the death of the four-year-old, and the living conditions that Jade and Bel endured as children, are not as black-and-white as the public wants to believe they are, which makes Amber and Jade sympathetic protagonists.
In addition to being an excellent intelligent dark thriller in the vein of Gillian Flynn (especially her first two books, Dark Places and Sharp Objects), The Wicked Girls presents an intriguing insider's account of salacious British tabloid journalism, about which Marwood obviously knows a lot.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects