It absolutely delights me that Polis Books has released the first US edition of Louise Phillips’ Red Ribbons. Phillips is Ireland’s finest mystery writer and Red Ribbons marked the first appearance of her criminal psychologist Kate Pearson, however my enjoyment of the occasion is not so much for the writer or for that matter our moss-covered island as it is for entirely selfish reasons.
You see, the one downside of a career as a regular book reviewer is that one never gets to read the back catalogue of anyone. Friends and readers alike (they occasionally overlap too) are forever suggesting books that I would simply love; books that were published in 2006, 1953 or 1832. So sorry darling, I simply don’t have the time. You may as well ask me to taste the Waldorf Salad you ate three years ago. A first international edition though, well that gives me a good enough excuse to move forward into the past. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I’d read and reviewed Phillips’ two most recent releases in the Kate Pearson series – Last Kiss and The Game Changer – with complete enjoyment. Having been a fan of the mystery genre ever since my mother started handing off her Agatha Christie, Nero Wolfe and Ellery Queen paperbacks to me as soon as she finished reading them (and she was a voluminous reader) there were few things that could content me more in a literary way than finding a new Favourite Mystery Author. I really hadn’t had one since Colin Dexter retired from writing the Inspector Morse series . Although the Pearson novels I had read previously are perfectly self-contained I had wondered how all this had started. At last I had the opportunity. Hurrah!
In a sort of archaeological way it’s a most fascinating exercise looking back at an author’s earliest work; literary Darwinism would be another way of phrasing it. We get to see what was there in a context of what it would become. In that sense, it is absolutely no wonder that Louise Phillips has had a remarkably successful career right from the get-go for every hallmark that exists in the later novels is present in Red Ribbons.
Phillips’ greatest talent, developed through what must have been thousands of hours of dedicated craft, is her ability to write in different voices with each as individual and believable as the others. If you think that’s easy, try writing just two pages of dialogue with three distinct characters. Not so easy, now is it? I mention this aspect of Phillips’ work first because it is the true difference between the artist and the hack. Any fool (and brother there’s lots of them) can slap a stereotype onto a page (the square-jawed cop, the curvaceous secretary, the weeping wife, the drink-addled parent) and we tend to barely notice the hack-work because there’s just so much of it that we accept it as what is. We shouldn’t accept mediocrity, ever, as it gets in the way of the good stuff that’s out there.
And here too, distinctiveness and individuality does not have to be made in big, slappy-happy brushstrokes . Not all villains have to wear monocles or stroke white cats. Subtlety is much more interesting as our inner minds record much more than our surface minds are aware of. For instance, in Red Ribbons as in her other novels Louise Phillips shares around the narration in first and third person voices as fits the alternating scenes. The Chris Chibnall scripted television series Broadchurch is a visual example of the technique and I mention it here as in terms of personal drama and motivations derived from past horrors if you like the one you’ll love the other. But I digress. Red Ribbons‘ bad ‘un has a distinctive verbal tic you might well not notice, not overtly anyway, and that is he uses characters’ first names a lot. He is forever referring to ‘Kate’ or ‘Caroline’ or ‘Amelia’, the latter two his child murder victims. ‘Well what’s so odd about that?’ you may be thinking. It’s a means of possession you see, like that old phrase of ‘use a word three times and it’s yours.’
Similarly, another narrator in Red Ribbons is Ellie who has been in a psychological clinic – we used to call them asylums – for fifteen years ever since burning a summer rental caravan/RV to the ground with her daughter in it. If that horrifies you, do remember that we’re talking about a mystery novel here. What did you expect, family picnics? Anyway, rather than have Ellie’s internal voice sounded as the hack’s drool and gibber, instead she is just borderline brittle, all the wrath and waves of anger having completed their erosion of the mental landscape. And this too is a wise, wise choice for as a theatre Director once said to me over post-rehearsal beers one night, nothing turns off an audience more than an actor screaming on stage. It is important that we pay attention to Ellie and care about what she says, not just to keep the pages turning, but because other characters in the novel will have to pay attention to Ellie and care about what she says. It all comes down to believability.
Believability is also vital for the Kate Pearson character herself. Not many mystery protagonists have fully-developed home lives. Poirot, Wolfe, Queen, Holmes, Morse, Marple, Marlowe, Jane Tennison – all of them unlucky or at best disinterested in love and family. I’m quite sure there’s a pretty good dissertation to be found in analyzing the reasons why, however I’ll leave that with you as a gift. Kate Pearson has a husband and a four year old son Charlie and their family dynamic rings real. Of course Kate’s husband Declan is frustrated by his wife being called away to the phone, with the added subtlety – thankfully not explained to its last breath – of a man’s discomfort when his wife’s job is more interesting than his own.
I haven’t told you much about the plot of Red Ribbons at all. Good. That means we all win. All I’ll tell you is that two girls’ bodies are found and complications arise. The rest is your joy to discover. I love the Kate Pearson novels as will you.