The Wicked Girls
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“Whatever the rest of the world thinks. I was no more responsible for what we did than you were. And now I know, a bit of me’s going to hate you till the day I die” (p. 170).
Twentyfive years ago, two elevenyearolds were convicted of murder and became infamous throughout England as “The Girls Who Killed Chloe” (p. 3). After a highly publicized trial, Bel Oldacre and Jade Walker were incarcerated at different institutions, given new names, and ordered by the court never to see one another again. It seems unlikely that Bel and Jade would ever again cross pathsuntil a series of brutal murders draws them back together.
Amber Gordon works the graveyard shift as a cleaner at Funnland, an amusement park in the seaside town of Whitmouth. “There are better bits of sea . . . but Whitmouth, with its lack of glamour and its contempt for aspiration, with its ceaselessly changing, unobservant crowds, makes her feel safe” (p. 43). Other than with her commonlaw husband, Vic, Amber rarely socializes and regards her coworkers as the nearest thing she’ll ever have to friends.
Kirsty Lindsay also “learned years ago that work is the great solace” (p. 180). Unlike Amber, however, Kirsty earned a university degree and strove to attain middleclass respectability. Decades after Chloe’s death, Kirstywhose picture once appeared below the headline, “Angelic Face of Evil” (p. 1)hides in plain sight as a reporter whose byline and photo regularly appear before the reading public.
Although they’ve been allowed their freedom, the system keeps careful track of them both. Each has kept her past a secret from everyoneincluding Vic and Kirsty’s husband, Jimbut the women must register their whereabouts with the police and regularly visit a probation officer for the rest of their lives. Both are also acutely aware that committing even the most minor infraction could expose their real identities.
As a stringer for the Tribune, Kirsty has covered her share of murders and knows what her editor expects when she’s sent to report on a potential serial killer in Whitmouth. “Her job is to find fifteen hundred words of the sort of Sunday feature that makes readers feel better about their own lives” (p. 49). Since the most recent victim was found at Funnland, Kirsty sets out to visit the crime scenenever expecting to run into own past.
Time has been kinder to Kirsty than Amber, who doesn’t immediately recognize the tastefully dressed woman calling out her childhood name. They know they’re forbidden to meet, but both are bound to Whitmouth. Amber’s life is here, andwith Jim unemployed for more than a yearKirsty needs the money she’ll earn from the story to support him and their two children. When two more murders further entwine them, Kirsty and Amber begin to fear that they are being targeted. What they don’t know is if it’s because of who they are nowor who they used to be.
A masterful debut thriller by reporterturnednovelist Alex Marwood, The Wicked Girls is a chilling exploration of crime, punishment, and the ways in which public perception is shaped by “Innuendo, allusion, and false connection: the staples of a media that’s still awaiting facts” (p. 274).
Alex Marwood is the pseudonym of a journalist who has worked extensively across the British Press. Marwood lives in South London and is working on her next novel.
The Wicked Girls offers an excoriating portrait of journalistic morals. Does the novel reflect your own opinions? If so, is that why you chose to use a pseudonym?
To be honest I think it’s as much a j’accuse about the hoary old quote “the public gets the media it deserves.” There are terrible examples of irresponsible journalism and manipulative behavior by editors and proprietors with agendas that are way divorced from the public good, but the vast majority of the journalists I met and knew during my decade or so on Fleet Street were thoroughly honorable, committed and decent individuals. But the fact is that the “quality” press struggles financially and has done so for decades, and this comes down, in the end, to the fact that people would rather use news sources that shore up their prejudices than allow their assumptions to be challenged. In the end, many people want to believe in a word of good and evil, us and them, goodies and baddies, and our political discourse seems to have been reduced, over recent decades, to terrifying levels of infantile mudslinging.
I actually wrote and sold The Wicked Girls a good year before the News of the World hacking scandal broke, and I’ve found it entertaining to find the occasional accusation surfacing that I was somehow “cashing in” or “chasing the zeitgeist.” But I did want to try to get across not just the responsibilities that the press bear for the damage they do, but the pressure journalists work underparticularly in a world where, when a paper hits the streets, the news it carries will have been out there on the TV and Internet for anything up to fortyeight hours. I also think that people often mistake what it is that journalists actually do. We’re not historians. We don’t have the luxuries of hindsight, and the whole picture, and knowledge of aftermathswe are ultimately you, asking questions on the street of strangers and trying to piece together the story so you don’t have to. As a result, even a journalist with the best possible intentions will inevitably get things wrong, or be misled by false information.
That said, some of the damage done by journalists is, and should be, unforgivable. People’s lives can be, and have been, ruined by the irresponsible, thuggish dissemination of personal prejudices. While I was writing The Wicked Girls, a young woman, Joanna Yeates was brutally murdered, and her landlord, Christopher Jefferies, was subjected to a dreadful trial by tabloid press, mostly on the basis that he had some odd habits and funny hair. Everything about this innocent man’s life was dissected and pored over in a manner that suggested his guilt, and his life was nearly destroyed.
The pseudonym is actually not as great a subterfuge as it looks. In the UK, I’ve had four novels published before, and the first three were packaged as Chicklit. British retailers are a conservative lot, and don’t like it when you change genre, so when I decided to move into straight crime, it seemed like a good idea to also become a new person.
In England, how seriously has the News of the World phone hacking scandal eroded the public’s faith in the media?
Dreadfullyand very much to the detriment of our liberties. People now talk about “the Press” in the way they talk about “the bankers” or, in some cases, “’the Jews”as though they are a homogenous group of people with identical outlooks, morals and agendas. Although the hacking scandal was a dreadful thing, completely inexcusable, the fact is that it was a tiny minority of the many thousands of working journalists in this country who were responsible for it, and the problem was as much that laws that were already in place were being flouted, often blatantly, without repercussions. But now people believe that “the press” is “out of control,” and seem to be happy to see new legislation passed that will allows future governments to interfere in press freedom. I believe fervently that a robust free press is indescribably important in protecting a democracy and curbing abuses of power and office, and am very concerned that we’re sleepwalking into dangerous territory.
What kind of news do you generally cover? Have you worked as a stringer like Kirsty? What inspired you to start writing fiction?
I was a jobbing features writer, basically. I did the odd news story, usually because I happened to be somewhere when something was happening, and did quite a lot of “news features” of the sort Kirsty writes, giving more considered, thoughtthrough coverage after the firstday scramble to get the bare facts, or hanging color and context onto the bare bones of a story. Mainly, though, I would wait around by the phone until after the editor’s conference in the morning, around 11:00 AM, and take orders to come up with a few hundred or a thousand words on whatever random subject, usually one about which I knew nothing, had been allotted to me, and get it in to the subs by roughly 3.30 PM. That’s what most journalists do. It’s stressfulevery morning you’d have a moment of “I don’t know a thing about that” panic, followed by a desperate scramble to start learningand the biggest rush, when you press send, that I’ve ever encountered.
I also wrote about TV, film, restaurants and travel, and wrote firstperson columns, both under my own name under assumed names. One of these led to my first novel. I was writing a comic “office anthropology” column anonymously for The Independent as a temp secretary, moving from workplace to workplace and observing the delusional behavior to be found in them. I did some temping when I first came to London, and it was largely autobiographical, I guess. Anyway, the column started getting fan mail, and I realized that I could fardle it up into a nice little earlytwentysomething ritesofpassage novel. So I did. It was published in 1999, and did well, spending some time in the Sunday Times top ten.
Stan is a fantastic character, and it’s especially interesting to see how differently Kirsty talks with him as opposed to everyone else. Do journalists really speak a shared lingo?
I don’t even think they know they do it, but yes, they do. Lots of groups of people do the same, of course, and it’s a way of weeding out the fantasists. But journalists are fun, they really are; even the wicked ones are fun. They’re broad, witty, fastthinking people with a huge range of knowledge stored in their brains and a constant quest after the bon mot. It’s been a while since I did a postdeadline cool down in a bar with a bunch of hacks, but I still miss it.
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Chloe’s death is how easily one can imagine it really happening. Is Bel and Jade’s case based on a truelife crime?
Well, yes and no. A number of things made me want to write this book, and obviously it would be impossible to have written it without reference to the notorious murder of toddler James Bulger in Liverpool in 1993. The culprits were two tenyearold boys, who became synonymous in the British imagination with unbridled evil. There are still regular email campaigns demanding that the nowadult boys in question be reincarceratedand a quick Facebook search throws up eleven groups calling for their death and/or torture. I was working at a paper when the trial was going on, and the difference between the court reporting that came down the wires and how it appeared after getting the Sun and Daily Mail treatment made one’s hair stand on end. I received a roundrobin email calling for them to be hunted down while I was thinking about this book.
You manage to keep both Bel/Amber and Jade/Kirsty sympathetic without wholly exonerating them from their actions. Was this a difficult line to tread?
Very. In the end, killing someone is killing someone,but I don’t know, though I’ve though about it a lot, if it had been me, how I would feel about being that person, or if I would even recognize her. I do believe that there’s a huge difference between an elevenyearold and an adult, and, while most elevenyearolds have pretty thoroughly formed moral universes, their understanding of consequences is still very much embedded in the infantile. One of the things I explore is the two women’s attitude to their ugly history. Amber owns her guilt more thoroughly, and Kirsty lives in something of a state of denialand it’s the denial that allows Kirsty to have lived a fuller, more successful life than Amber’s. Denial is one of our great protective systems, and in many ways, though public opinion would probably disagree with me, I feel that Kirsty is a far healthier individual than Amber as a result of her compartmentalizing.
As an author writing under a pseudonym, did you draw upon your own anxieties when imagining ways in which one’s true identity might be exposed?
Not really. Though the fact that I was planning to become a “new person” certainly fed into my choice of subject matter. I guess matters of identity, hiding and truthfulness were at the forefront of my mind. But journalists, interestingly, scored very highly on one study I read of shyness by profession, and certainly, when I was working, I would semiconsciously strap on my “professional” face every day before I hit the streets and the phones. I do the same thing now when I have to do public speaking events.
In America, it’s become increasingly likely that a child who commits murder will be charged as an adult rather than as a minor. Is this true in England as well?
Nothe opposite, if anything. The trial of James Bulger’s killers convinced a lot of people that children should not be tried in adult courts, thank goodness, though there is always some pressure from the hangthemandflogthem inclined. As increasing bodies of study are showing that preadolescence and adolescence are accompanied by an actual drop in a child’s IQ as well as its rational reasoning abilities, I think that this is absolutely as it should be. What was done to Jamie Bulger was appalling, and my sympathy for his poor family is immense, but we have a duty, as human beings, not to confuse our revulsion with rational thought.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
Oh, Lordit’s hard to know where to even begin. There’s so much stuff I love, and writers who have influenced me. Of people who influenced my youth: Daphne du Maurier, George Eliot, Stephen King, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, Stella Gibbons, M. R. James, E. Nesbit, James Herbert (I reference him in The Wicked Girls), C. S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Hardy. Current writers I admire include Laura Lippman, Jeff Lindsay, Thomas Harris, Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, Belinda Bauer, Gillian Flynn, Kate Atkinson, and, of course, Stephen King again. But, oh dear, so many more I could be here all day.
What are you working on now?
I’m just putting the finishing touches on The Killer Next Door, in which a group of disparate characters in a south London rooming house are unaware that there is a serial killer in their number. It contains a death that I think might even surpass The Wicked Girls’s chip fork for memorableness.
- Bel and Jade were convicted of committing murder when they were elevenyearsold. Do you think the fact that they once killed predisposes them to kill again? Did your opinion change over the course of the novel?
- In most cases, do you believe that an elevenyearold understands the concept of murder? How should the state handle a preteen who’s killed?
- How much of your elevenyearold self do you remember or recognize in who you are today?
- Early on in The Wicked Girls, Stan tells Kirsty about a story he’s covering about two twelveyearold boys who bullied another boy to his death. How does this set the stage for Bel and Jade’s crime?
- Do you generally accept the media’s representation of an individualparticularly the suspect in a crimeat face value?
- What responsibility does the media have to uphold our legal concept of “innocent until proven guilty”?
- If you were trying to bury your past, how would you go about recreating a new life and identity?
- Rather than frightening away tourists, news of the Whitmouth strangler brings the town bigger crowds than normal. Have you ever been tempted to visit the scene of a crime? If so, what was its allure?
- Did you realize that Amber was Bel and Kirsty was Jade before the novel revealed their original identities? If so, what gave it away?
- Ultimately, was either Bel or Jade more responsible for Chloe’s death? Now that you know the circumstances surrounding Chloe’s death, what punishment would you mete outand to whom?
- Why does Amber/Bel make her final act of selfsacrifice? Does Jade/Kirsty deserve to walk away unscathed? And does she, in fact, walk away unscathed at all?
- Class is often perceived as the white elephant in British culturea hulking presence that many prefer to ignore. But class plays a huge role in the novel. Why does it seem to give us an extra frisson of pleasure when someone from the wealthy upper classes commits a crime? How might things have transpired differently if Bel had gone to Exmouth and Jade to Blackdown Hills?