Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the most interesting kinds of crime fiction is crime fiction that features an unreliable narrator. That plot device adds suspense and interest and depends on solid character development (We have to have a reason to accept that the narrator’s unreliable). To give you an example of what I mean, let’s take a closer look at a novel that makes especially effective use of the unreliable narrator, Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red.
Traces of Red begins at a crossroads in the life of Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne. She co-hosts the very popular Saturday Night and has a life a lot of other people envy. But the show’s ratings have been slipping and Thorne knows that there are other “hungry” journalists just waiting to take her spot at the top of the ratings. Besides, she feels she’s reached a plateau in her career; she doesn’t have the passion for it that she once did. What Thorne’s looking for is the story that will re-energise her and establish her as the top television journalist in New Zealand – something she can get her teeth into as the saying goes. She finds what could be her solution in the case of Connor Bligh.
Bligh is in Rimutaka Prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. The only survivor is Angela and Rowan’s daughter Katy, who wasn’t at home at the time of the killings. There are claims that Bligh is innocent, that important leads weren’t followed up properly and that Bligh was “railroaded” because there was a public outcry for a conviction. Thorne is upset at the possible injustice if Bligh is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Besides, this story could be the story of Thorne’s career. So she begins to get to work on it.
Through her lover Joe Fahey, who is Bligh’s attorney, Thorne manages to get permission to meet and interview Bligh. She also convinces Bligh to tell her about himself and about what happened on the day of the murders. In the meantime, Thorne uses every resource she has available to look into the case again. In fact she uses up so much time and energy on this case that she loses her job and her personal life falls apart.
Thorne is convinced though that she’s on the right track in re-visiting this case. So she keeps asking questions, she uses what she learns from Bligh and from witnesses who knew the family, and she slowly puts together the truth. In the end Thorne finds out what really happened to the Dickson family.
In this novel, we really see the element of the unreliable narrator woven through the plot. Thorne, for instance, is convinced that there’s a story here and that belief naturally colours her judgement. Is she finding out the truth or is she seeing what she wants to see? Has she lost her impartiality as a journalist or is Bligh really innocent? Connor Bligh tells his story in a long set of letters he sends to Thorne from prison. His story is told of course from his perspective. Is he lying? Is he telling the truth? Is he telling what he honestly believes to be the truth? There are other characters too, both supporters of Bligh and those who believe he’s guilty. As Thorne interviews them she and the reader have to sift out whether what they say is reliable.
Another element that runs through this story is the reality of life in front of television cameras. Through Thorne we get a look at what it’s like to go after a potentially very big story. Thorne uses all of her contacts and her interviewing skills to try to get the truth about the Dickson murders so readers get a look at how journalists work. There’s also a strong feel for what it’s like “behind the scenes” at a top television network. Ratings matter and anything that makes ratings slip is a problem. That stress and the pressure it puts on Thorne play out in this novel. So does the reality of the “youth culture” of a lot of television. For instance, Thorne faces real competition from Janet Beardsley, the up-and-coming new darling of the network, whose show Courageous Leaps is getting lots of attention. More than once in the novel Thorne is reminded that appearance, youthfulness and the vagaries of public interest matter a lot in the television business. That pressure and stress add to the tension in this novel and give Thorne added motivation for making the Dickson case a priority at the network.
There’s also a strong element of characterisation in this novel. As Thorne pursues her story, we learn bit by bit what Connor Bligh is like, what his sister Angela was like, and what Rowan and Sam were like. We also meet the very strong character of Katy Dickson, who’s had no immediate family since the age of thirteen. Katy has always believed that her uncle was guilty and she has nothing but contempt for Thorne, who is raking up all of Katy’s pain again. When Thorne finally meets Katy, here is Katy’s reaction:
“I’ve got nothing to say to you. You’ve no right to even be here.”
When Thorne persists, Katy goes even further:
“P*** off… Get her out of here. Get her out. You people are scum. Why can’t you leave me alone?”
Through Katy we see the devastating effect of murder on those who survive.
And then there’s the character of Rebecca Thorne, who discovers a lot about herself even as she’s looking for the truth in the Dickson case. She’s smart, passionate and good at her job. It’s easy to respect her zeal and determination. She’s a loving sister, daughter and aunty too. But she is almost blindly strong-minded and she certainly has her own personal baggage. Her character is complex and it is to Richardson’s credit that readers can sympathise with Thorne and connect with her while at the same time disliking some aspects of her character.
The story is told in part through flashback and in part through the letters that Bligh sends to Thorne. It’s also told in part through Thorne’s eyes as she searches for the truth. So readers who prefer linear stories told chronologically will be disappointed. That said though, it’s clear throughout the novel whose story is being told and when the events being described happened.
Traces of Red features a strong focus on characters, a highly effective use of the unreliable narrator and a believable mystery that unfolds authentically and at a solid pace. But what’s your view? Have you read Traces of Red? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 13 August/Tuesday 14 August – White Sky, Black Ice – Stan Jones
Monday 20 August/Tuesday 21 August – Edwin of the Iron Shoes – Marcia Muller
Monday 27 August/Tuesday 28 August – Faceless Killers – Henning Mankell