Chris Whitaker is one of the those authors about whom I cannot for the life of me understand why he isn’t on all the award and bestseller lists, celebrity and TV/Radio book clubs. Because, dammit, this guy can write! This is his third novel. I’ve read them all and I’d happily read his shopping lists!

It’s exciting to experience a writer’s progress from the first novel through. The maturity of this book suggests to me a writer comfortable in his own skin, confident, and implicitly understanding how to satisfy his readers. I saw a similarity of style, theme and… setting. I find it amazing that Whitaker is domiciled in the UK and is not a native American. He writes of small-town America with a sagacious understanding that I fear many actual natives don’t have!

This latest continues that trend, this time we’re in California, Cape Haven to be precise, and whether the town is aptly named or not you’ll have to read the book to find out. Not the only location though, much of the action takes place in the Big Sky Country state of Montana. Whitaker creates his characters and his plot so that everything weaves and balances in literary harmony. No contrivance, just a character-driven narrative which flows and demands the engagement of our emotion. These people intertwine with each other, the reader and the events depicted in the story so elegantly and steadfastly yet with such raw frailty.

Here is a writer who understands children, the paradox of their self absorption yet that intuitive compassion that can be diluted as we age. Possibly because of the name Radley the ghosts of Jem and Scout seemed to be reading alongside me. Duchess Day Radley will squeeze you heart, such a damaged soul who deserves so much more than the challenges thrown at her, defined by a past she has had no control over she tries so hard to make everything right and yet her volatile nature so often turns the sliding door moments in the wrong direction. Names are everything here, often with subtle intent.

And yet for all its humanity and observations of love, friendship and family bonds, this is a crime story. Walk is the local police chief, as damaged as Duchess maybe but in different ways. He has his ongoing challenges. Yet his intrinsic decency allows him to step off the page and into our hearts too. The crime is a fusion of story telling and the crime itself for without the crime the story doesn’t get told and without the story there is no crime which is stating the obvious I know but it gives credence to the faintly palindromic nature of the title, begin at the end – end at the beginning.

I enjoyed the subtle and sometimes black humour of Tall Oaks and All the Wicked Girls. It takes a back seat here, although some of the exchanges between Duchess and beautiful Thomas Noble (another example of how evocative a choice of name can be) will bring a wry smile to your face. And that’s how it should be for this is not a tale to make us smile. It’s a tale to make us think and consider the complexities of people and relationships, of place and motivation.

And I will end at the beginning – Chris Whitaker is one of the those authors about whom I cannot for the life of me understand why he isn’t on all the award and bestseller lists, celebrity and TV/Radio book clubs. Because, dammit, this guy can write!

Gill Chedgey 5/4

We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker
Zaffre 9781785769627 hbk Apr 2020