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Tuesday 12 September 2017

‘99 Red Balloons’ by Elisabeth Carpenter

Published by Avon,
24 August 2017.
ISBN: 978-0-00-822351-9 (PB)

It's hard for a debut author to get a foot on the ladder. That means it's important to do two things: one, get the basics right, and two, make yourself stand out from the crowd. In crime fiction especially, that crowd is very large. So I have to confess that my heart sank a little when I saw that this particular debut novel was about child abduction. It's a well-worn theme, designed to tug at the heartstrings of any reader, and especially of mothers. But it does get used a lot.

How was a rookie writer going to turn a familiar story into something different, I wondered. Well, take it from me, Elisabeth Carpenter does. She does get the basics right, and the storyline itself is exactly what you'd expect: small girl fails to return home from school on time, parents go ape and call the police, who investigate, and eventually... well, there's always a positive outcome, isn't there? But it doesn't end there.

She chooses three techniques which challenge the most experienced of authors: first person, present tense and multiple viewpoint. The chapters switch between half a dozen characters: victim, perpetrator, frantic family members. Each point of view is presented in the first person, though the abductee's aunt, trying desperately to support her sister and still hold it together herself, takes the lion's share. Some chapters are only a page or two, others much longer; together with the constant changes of viewpoint, this helps to ratchet up the suspense level, as does the in-your-face immediacy of the present tense.

Carpenter also has a deft hand with characters. I felt for them; I almost wept for some of them; and I felt I knew them. I especially liked Jim, peripheral to the main storyline but full of bounce and vim although he's well past youth's second blush and not in the best of health; and Grace, the abducted child, proves as feisty and resilient as any mother would hope her child would be in similar appalling circumstances.

So what's different about this take on the old theme? That lies in the stories behind the story. It's said that the police always take a hard look at the family when a child goes missing; Carpenter has picked up this idea and given it a whole new twist.

For me, though, the best thing about this novel is one of the most stunning pieces of misdirection I've ever come across in a crime novel – and I read a lot of crime novels. I'm saying nothing that might give the game away, but rest assured all is most definitely not as it seems.

Elisabeth Carpenter is a debut author with a future. I look forward to seeing her pursue it.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Elisabeth Carpenter lives in Preston with her family. She completed a BA in English Literature and Language with the Open University in 2008. Elisabeth was awarded a Northern Writers’ New Fiction award, and was longlisted for Yeovil Literary Prize (2015 and 2016) and the MsLexia Women’s Novel award (2015). She loves living in the north of England and sets most of her stories in the area, including the novel she is writing at the moment. She currently works as a book keeper.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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