Thirty years ago, Vincent King became a killer.
Now, he’s been released from prison and is back in his hometown of Cape Haven, California. Not everyone is pleased to see him. Like Star Radley, his ex-girlfriend, and sister of the girl he killed.
Duchess Radley, Star’s thirteen-year-old daughter, is part-carer, part-protector to her younger brother, Robin – and to her deeply troubled mother. But in trying to protect Star, Duchess inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will have tragic consequences not only for her family, but also the whole town.
Murder, revenge, retribution.
How far can we run from the past, when the past seems doomed to repeat itself?
How to begin to review this book? I don’t know how I’m going to do it justice, to be honest. It was my first read of the year, and I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to write this review for almost three weeks. There is so much I want to convey about my feelings, and not the words to do it adequately. Still, I can put it off no longer, so here we go.
This book is ostensibly a thriller, spanning a period of decades, and it works extremely well purely on that level. Thirty years ago a murder shook a small town to its foundations and had lasting consequences for everyone closely connected with the case, and down into the next generation. It has robbed Duchess Radley and her brother of a stable family life, and of police chief, Walk, of his best friend and peace of mind. And now the man convicted of the crime is about to be released from prison and return to Cape Haven. This is the catalyst for massive upheaval in the community and a new spate of disturbances that affect all the main players all over again to devastating effect.
The plot of the thriller is complex and surprising, with twists and turns you will not see coming, but it offers more than a straight forward mystery. We are shown the wider consequences of crime, the cause and effect, the life-altering repercussions it has for so many people, not just the victim and perpetrator. How it changes people, rips apart families, ripples through a community as a whole, and is felt for many, many years after the events took place. It is such a considered approach to telling the story of crime that you have to admire the author’s skill, and it rewards the reader with a more cerebral experience than you might usually expect. It will provoke a lot of ruminating on the nature and consequences of both crime and the way we punish criminals in anyone who chooses to take a considered approach.
But this book is so much more than a simple thriller, and it is in the development and examination of the characters that the true beauty and appeal of this book lies. Chris Whitaker has created real people here who will not only get under your skin, but also into your heart and will haunt your thoughts for days, even weeks, after you have finished the novel.
The story is told by two people. The first is the police chief, Walk. As a boy, he was best friends with the person accused of killing Sissy Radley. Thirty years later, he is the chief of police in Cape Haven, faced with having to integrate a murderer back into the life of a town that doesn’t want him, look out for his great friend, Star Radley, when her sister’s killer is released, all the while not being able to reconcile the idea that his childhood friend is a murderer. This is a man at war with himself, torn between his job and firm sense of justice and responsibility to the town, and ingrained loyalty to his childhood companions. Walk’s struggle permeates every page of the book. We watch as the battling sides of his conscience inform his actions, and the impact that has on other players in the story. We ask ourselves constantly is he is doing the right thing. What would we do in his position? Is life always as black and white as we comfortably view it from a distance? Of course, it isn’t and we live that struggle through Walk’s eyes throughout the book. It is such a clever and impelling mechanism for conveying ideas and issues for the reader to grapple with.
The other narrator is Duchess Radley, niece of the murder victim and a girl whose life has been shaped entirely by events that pre-dated her birth and over which she has no control. The murder of her aunt has made her who she is, pre-ordained her circumstances and opportunities, even though she never knew her, and it is monstrously unfair.
Duchess Radley is the most extraordinary character I have ever come across in a novel. I can’t think of another who has affected me so profoundly as she has. She has completely wormed her way into my psyche to the point where I was feeling every single emotion she was going through. As a consequence, parts of this book almost cracked my heart in two. We get to see what has created this bravado shell she puts up against a world that has been against her since the day she was born, but we also get to see the terrified child underneath, the beautiful love she has for the little brother she protects like a fierce momma bear, and her longing for someone to take her burdens from her shoulders, but her suspicion of a world, and people, who have failed her at every turn before. It is so beautiful and honest but totally soul-destroying at the same time. No child should be in this position, the world asks too much of her, and yet her resilience is amazing. We know there are children in the world suffering in similar ways, and it is shameful. The author has created in Duchess one of the most perfect and memorable and truly successful characters that has every really lived on the page and I know she will stay with me for a long, long time.
This is a book, ultimately, about love and loss and consequence. About family and friendship and the bonds we build with people throughout our lives in different ways, and how strong those bonds can be in the face of adversity. And about sacrifice. About what we are prepared to give up to protect the people we love most in the world and allow them to thrive, no matter what the personal cost to ourselves. It is the most extraordinary feat of novel-writing and I urge everyone to pick up a copy as soon as you can. You won’t find a much more rewarding and moving reading experience anywhere.
We Begin At The End is out now in all formats and you can buy a copy here.
About the Author
Chris Whitaker is the award winning author of Tall Oaks and All The Wicked Girls. Both books were published to widespread critical acclaim, with Tall Oaks going on to win the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award.
His latest novel, We Begin At The End, is available now.
Chris lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and two young sons.
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