Into that darkness

The Face

Phil Whitaker <em>Atlantic Books, 247pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 1843540207

If you're looking for a non-toxic alternative to sleeping pills, your best bet this season is any book that is being marketed as a literary thriller. In theory, this is the global form - the fast-paced adventure that still finds time to do minute character studies that capture the spirit of the age, while using words in a way never previously imagined. In practice, the literary thriller is the purgatory of the half-hearted, where writers with experimental tendencies dig shallow plots to please their publishers, and then dress them up with postmodern conceits that might have been very daring, had they written them 30 years ago.

But here, for once, is the real thing. The Face is a novel that merges literary with crime fiction because it has no choice. It is exploring an area we see as intensely personal and dangerously political without ever quite considering the two extremes together. It uses suspense to draw us in to a story that we might otherwise seek to avoid. It forces us to see how we have all been touched by abuse panics, even those of us who live in "good and decent families". It shows how these ugly scandals can complicate an already complicated relationship - and how the fear of abuse makes women as well as men even less able to face up to it, even when it is happening right in front of their eyes.

The starting point is an accident that could be suicide or murder. The deceased is Ray Arthur, formerly of the CID, but now retired. He strayed on to the hard shoulder while driving on the A40 and smashed into a bridge. His only daughter, Zoe (whom he raised alone), cannot believe he would have taken his own life, but she finds a disquieting message on his answering machine just after his death. It is from a man named Declan; although she has never heard his name before, the tone of the message implies that he is an old acquaintance who is in frequent contact. She soon discovers that Declan lives in Nottingham, where her father was stationed when she was a toddler. The two men met during the time Declan worked as a police artist.

Sensing unfinished business, Zoe decides to find out more. She is still almost totally in the dark when Declan appears as second narrator to cast some light on events. Although his story is addressed to Zoe, it soon becomes clear that he has no intention of letting her hear it. Running between these competing narratives is a third effort to establish the truth - the inquest at which her father's life insurance company seeks to establish his death as suicide. The games of court sound very odd next to Zoe's fraught account of her trip to Nottingham, and both stories pale next to Declan's account of his last ever job for the police. It was an ugly abuse case, in the bad old days when child abuse was not yet properly understood. Zoe's father was in charge of the investigation, and Declan provided the artist's impression of the abuser.

He takes his time getting to the point, and so there are times when the three-strand narrative seems unnecessarily ornate. It is only at the very end that the novel's perfect symmetry becomes apparent. The truth that emerges does not follow any of the lurid plots we now use to explain child abuse. Like a hidden figure in a drawing, it is as subtle as it is obvious.

Unlike most thrillers that deal with the same themes, The Face avoids easy outs and convenient scapegoats. Instead, it forces us to stand in front of our collective blind spot. And there it leaves us, cruelly refusing to restore order or even to re-establish the primacy of reason. It does not allow its characters even a moment of enlightenment. Instead, it leaves them to grope in the dark. But the worst thing about this scary, courageous novel is that it makes you think.

Maureen Freely is a novelist and journalist