Book Review: Jo Spain – Dirty Little Secrets

When Olive Collins is found dead after rotting away in her living room for three months after succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning, no-one from the other 6 houses in Withered Vale seems too sad about it. Turns out, they all had reasons to want her dead….

An entertaining twist on the locked room mystery, ‘Dirty Little Secrets’ feels closer to Desperate Housewives or Midsomer Murders than Miss Marple. The glamorous, self-absorbed residents and surroundings, the endless scandals bubbling under the surface, the high-camp reactions of the characters to every new development. This is far more clever though while retaining a feel of harmless fun – deep musings on the Irish (and, reading from the UK, the British) justice system, clear development and a careful understanding of characters suffering from trauma, trying to put it behind them, and extremely clever plotting to keep you guessing right until the 400th page. Not just the plotting – the language used is dubious enough to not be outright lies, but definitely misleading enough to convince yourself of someone’s guilt.

The residents were all shown to have shades of both good and evil in them, and I can appreciate an author who is not content to just stick with those black and white cliches. I did find myself rooting for all the women and against the men, though – I don’t know if that’s just how I read it. Alison Daly, in particular, had me rooting for her, even when she’s prime suspect at points in the book. Abusive relationships run through this story – from the blatant (Holly, Alison and Emma) to the more subtle (David-Lily) and even to the unrealised (Matt-Chrissy), and it was refreshing to see someone explore serious themes without making it look either like a box-ticking exercise or a convenient plot point.

In amongst the seriousness there is a lot of dark humour. I laughed more than once at some of the language used, especially when it stopped being a secret that Olive was a very bad woman and no one really missed her. Lily and David’s liberation from an extreme, healthy lifestyle was another highlight. From that scene comes a quote which I know I will be using for years to come:

I never joke about something as important as wine.

Alison Daly

Detectives Frank and Emma have genuine chemistry too. I loved watching their relationship (rather like that of the residents) move from miscommunicating colleagues to understanding friends who have each other’s backs. Both are strong enough to stand up as individuals outside the case as well, which is all too rare in the crime fiction world. I was sad when I realised there was very little chance of a second novel with the two, but also happy – they are perfect just as they are, in this little picturesque world in rural Ireland. I also respected how time and again the police were shown to make assumptions which turned out incorrect – they are human after all, and too often have I read them work everything out instantly without considering other options.

Having found this in a charity shop just last Monday, I raced through ‘Dirty Little Secrets’ in under a week. If that doesn’t say how good it is, nothing will. Intricately plotted, with entertaining twists and incredible character development throughout, this is one for you if you like your mysteries to be both intelligent and humourous.

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