Sugar & Spice is inspired by the true story of Scottish serial killer, Robert Black, who killed a number of young girls in the UK in the 1980s. It was a best-seller in the UK and won the Red Adept Mystery Award in 2011.
Given that the story involves the murder of young girls, it’s fair to point out that the content of this novel is quite dark and may not appeal to all readers. For those who would not be put off by that, there are elements in how the author has chosen to tell this story that might be of interest.
Firstly, the author has chosen the mother of one of the victims and her search for understanding, for meaning, as the focal point of the narrative. This choice leads the reader through some fairly uncomfortable subject matter such as the humanity behind paedophilia and rape, something many, including the character herself, wouldn’t ordinarily want to contemplate.
It was telling that one of the aspects that evokes the most outrage in the story is actually the treatment of convicted or suspected paedophiles throughout the criminal investigation. We also view pederasty from a psychological and political perspective giving all sorts of grey shades to what is usually considered a very black and white topic.
There were a few elements that didn’t appeal to me. I found the incredibly short chapters distracting. Shorter chapters can help to give the perception of a faster pace, but in this case, the chapters were not only too small, but they were rather arbitrarily placed, often breaking a single scene into multiple fragments. Rather than promoting a good flow, the narrative felt like a series of spasmodic convulsions. Equally frustrating was the climax of the story, which I felt was mishandled. A door key-card appearing in a convenient location, very specific information on who and what from a boy without prior knowledge, someone locked in a room suddenly released and meandering about the area. It felt like the logic of the story, previously pretty tight, had started to unravel at the worst of possible moments.
The main character of the book is Claire, mother of the first victim found. In trying to come to terms with what has happened to her daughter, she starts to tease at the edges of the police investigation with some subtle help from her partner, an investigative reporter, and a detective involved with the case. Before long she’s having conversations with convicted paedophiles, rapists and psychotherapists trying to understand a topic she’s always avoided, meanwhile inching closer to the serial killer.
Nothing about these scenarios are terribly realistic, but it’s clear that the author wanted to move away from a police procedural and explore the more personal journey of Claire.
We also see this story from the point of view of Greg Randall, father of twin girls. Greg has a secret compulsion – one that is getting stronger. However, he is determined never to let what he’s feeling hurt anyone and he voluntarily submits to psychotherapy. Experiencing life through Greg’s eyes is quite uncomfortable especially with the details of the serial killer storyline running in parallel. And when these stories collide, the author gives the reader plenty to consider about how we judge those around us.
There are so many people I would not recommend this book to. Crimes against children can generate very strong reactions, even in fiction. In fact, it’s the emotional element that I think the author is presenting in a cautionary light.
The current in Sugar & Spice is strong enough that it becomes easy to manipulate and more than one life is destroyed in the process. At the same time, the author challenges us to justify our reactions by making some very unsubtle points about the treatment of children in our society. This almost becomes heavy-handed when we are introduced to so-called social workers later in the story, but the claim that children are treated as second class citizens has a nagging element of truth to it.
It’s quite clear to me that neither the author nor this book condones violence of any kind towards children. Having said that, the author is not afraid to confront and challenge the reader throughout this uncomfortable read. Luckily for me, I like to be challenged and I don’t mind being uncomfortable.
Price at the time of review: $2.99 US
Author site: http://www.saffinadesforges.com
GoodReads page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10083602-sugar-spice