This is a novel that is tangentially about the brutal murder of a twenty-five year old woman. In life, Bella Michaels was beautiful and vivacious, the kind of woman who’s killing dominates the news media. Some people reading this description might be tempted to sigh, for crime fiction is full of beautiful young women - often blonde with blue eyes - butchered by violent serial killers. The treatment of women in crime fiction has come in for a lot of criticism over the years, some complaining their portrayal is tittilation, others like the crime writer Val McDermid, arguing it reflects the violence women all too often face. Regardless of where one sits on this argument, reading An Isolated Incident one quickly comes to realise that Bella Michael’s death isn’t actually the novel’s focus at all. Instead, this book can best be seen as a meditation on grief.
An Isolated Incident is told from the perspective of two women: Bella’s sister, Chris, and May Norman, an aspiring crime reporter. Chris is a barmaid at the local pub who’s still deeply in love with her ex-husband, Nate. May works for a website and has persuaded the editor to let her work the Bella Michaels’ story, hoping it will be her big break. As the novel unveils we learn much about both women - that Chris drinks too much and takes men home with her, many of whom leave money on the dresser the morning after; that May has been having an affair with a married man who she’s only just realised will never leave his wife, that she’s bulimic. As May tries to investigate the crime, we also learn that Nate has a conviction for beating up a former partner and is a prime suspect for Bella’s murder.
As indicated, all this is in many ways beside the point. The real power of An Isolated Incident comes from seeing events pan out from Chris’s perspective. Chris and her sister were extremely close and she is devastated by her sister’s death. Through deeply moving and beautifully poetic prose we see this etched out painfully. This is not a depressing tale, though at times it is difficult to read, the sheer emotion of someone so bereft by loss speaking from the page.
May Norman is a more ambiguous character than Chris. In some way she is sympathetic, but her journalistic ambitions make her prey on Chris’s vulnerability. She’s not the bloodsucking journalist of cliché, the author is too accomplished a writer to opt for easy stereotypes, but it’s true to say that the media are invasive into the lives of those who suffer tragedy and May, while not as cynical as some of her colleagues, is determined to get the story.
There are other elements to the novel; a light touch of the supernatural, Chris convinced she is hearing from Bella’s spirit, but whether she is or suffering the madness of grief, the reader is left to decide; the small town of Strathdee where the murder takes place is blue collar, the kind of place that in the US might be dismissed as redneck by suburbanites. The misogyny and male chauvinism that both Chris and May face is vividly portrayed.
This is a poignant novel, more an examination of the consequence of violent death, rather than the death itself and subsequent investigation. Indeed, when the killer is revealed it is almost irrelevant, Chris making clear herself that it won’t bring her beloved sister back. Regardless of how one views the violence portrayed in crime fiction, it’s undoubtedly true to say that too few examine the aftermath, the effect such events have on those left behind. An Isolated Incident does this and is well worth a read.
4 out of 5 stars