Red Ribbons may be about the hunt for a serial killer, but for me, what really stands out from this brilliant debut novel by Louise Phillips is Ellie, Ellie Brady.
Although not introduced until the fourth chapter (fifth if you count the prologue), some six months after the preceding chapters, Phillips http://www.louise-phillips.com/ hands us a fascinating, haunted character, who is trapped, mentally and physically.
Ellie’s opening scene sets the tone…
‘I am wearing some other person’s clothes, an unbecoming grey blouse and faded jeans. By now, I am used to such things. Everything I have belonged to someone else at one time or another, everything, that is, except the bits that matter. Sadly, the bits that matter are all mine. My short, brown hair is washed and tucked, childlike, behind my ears. I wear neither make-up nor jewellery. There is no need for such things here. I have no need for such things.’
Phillips paints moving and beautiful pictures of Ellie’s life in a psychiatric hospital…
‘I watch the sun creep through the small window in my room. There’s just a hint of it now, catching the bottom of the sill. It enters the darkeness as it does every day, climbing grey walls and pink chipped window frames; revealing itself discreetly, like some virginal bride.’
Ellie talks of how her life consists of doing ‘nothing things’….
‘More than most, I understand the concept of loneliness. I’ve lived it since the day I came into this place. When you’re institutionalised, you forget the way people in the outside world think. You’re no longer able to understand normality..I’ve seen how the day to day of doing nothing defies the logic of the human race outside the walls. Days soaked in routine..’
But her life begins to change with the arrival of a new doctor, Samuel Ebbs (a cool name, like a character plucked out of Wuthering Heights).
The second main character (the first character introduced) is William Cronly: the baddie. The first chapter didn’t engage me really and I found the descriptions of Cronly’s office colleagues a bit cardboardy, cut-out-types. But his own character is nicely outlined in subsequent chapters, often when at home..
‘Olive oil bottles were turned upside down, jars and tins cleared out with methodical knife-scraping, and tubes, especially toothpaste tubes, were flattened to perfection….Opening the kichen cupboards, he noted the consumables sorted into their relevant categories, the earliest sell-by dates to the front. Taking down the small tin chest of Mokalbari tea, he felt an immediate sense of pride, delighted with this little find from the nearby Indian shop. The tea not only tasted of malt but had a very distinct and splendid hint of elderberry,’ the latter fruit of particular relevance to him.
Cronly is every parent’s worst nightmare: intelligent and with a gift for connecting with children. There is a nice scene where Cronly remembers seeing one of his targets in the swimming pool…
‘He could still picture her from months earlier, placing those small toes in to test the water, pulling her hair back behind her ears before the dive. He had watched as the long strands of her hair had become immersed, floating to the top like seaweed. He had listened attentively as he heard someone call out her name: Amelia. It was such a pretty name for a young girl. He had thought she would be perfect.’
The author delves over the course of the book into Cronly’s relationship with his horrible mother and how a traumatic incident from his childhood helped twist him into what he became.
The third character is Dr Kate Pearson, a criminal psychologist at the top of her game, who is struggling with relationship/family problems and a childhood incident. There are some good descriptions of the scenes in the Dublin mountains where the bodies are buried and Kate’s insights into the murders and the killer.
I like the research Phillips obviously did with detectives regarding garda procedures, the conservation of scenes, forensic and technical examinations and garda case conferences.
For a longish book with over 100 chapters (albeit all short), the novel moves along at a fair clip. Tensions mount and the pace quickens further as the hunt for the killer intensifies, Ellie’s story intersects with the main plot and Cronly extends his targets. You could bang a drum on the book by the latter stages it is so taut and honed.
The novel is also technically interesting in that Ellie is written in the first person and everyone else is in the third. Phillips also uses different fonts to distinguish between the three main characters. In addition, there are chapters from the point of view of four other characters.
Red Ribbons (Hachette Ireland https://www.hachette.ie/BookDetail.aspx?Id=287629) is out on small paperback today (May 1). Phillips’ second novel, The Doll’s House (another cool name) is out soon: August, I think. Sounds intriguing.