Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. For many people, Greek islands are exotic places. And they have enough mystery about them to make them very effective contexts for crime stories. To show you what I mean, let’s take a close look at a mystery that takes place on the island of Corfu. Today, the spotlight shines on Ekaterine Nikas’ The Divided Child.
Christine Stewart is a Greek-American who’s spending a few weeks on Corfu both as a holiday and to connect with her past. She’s visiting the Old Fortress one day when she meets a young boy, Michael Redfield. They have a conversation and Michael, who lives on the island, takes her on a short tour of the fortress. While they’re there, a piece of stone falls from the building. Christine sees it just in time to shove them both out of the way. They escape with minor injuries, and Christine insists on making sure the boy gets safely back to his home.
Very soon, Christine learns that in helping Michael, she’s put herself in the middle of a highly-charged custody situation. Michael lives with his stepmother Demetra Redfield and Demetra’s brother Spiro Skouras, and both are determined that he’ll stay with them. But Michael also has an uncle, Geoffrey Redfield, who says that Michael isn’t safe with them. To make matters worse, neither Demetra nor Geoffrey trusts Christine.
In the meantime, Christine and Michael have gotten fond of each other, and of course, Christine doesn’t want any harm to come to the boy. So she’s concerned about his situation. She’s even more worried when she learns what’s really behind this custody battle. Michael’s father (and Geoffrey’s brother) William was a very wealthy man who died in what may or may not have been an accident. Michael is therefore set to inherit a fortune, and if he dies, so will whoever has custody of him. So Christine fears that he may have more ‘accidents.’
And she doesn’t have long to wait. Michael has another brush with death, and now it seems that whoever is after him is also after Christine. Then, Michael disappears. Not long afterwards, his governess/maid Helen is found dead. Now, Lieutenant Ari Mavros of the Corfu Police and his team begin to investigate. It’s mostly likely that someone in the family has spirited the boy away, since so much is at stake. If so, he has to be found as quickly as possible because his life is quite probably in danger. And even if Michael chose to run off, there’s a serious and obvious risk of danger or worse.
Little by little, Christine finds out bits and pieces of the truth about William’s death, about Michael’s family history and about the various roles played by the members of the family. And the more she learns, the riskier it is for her. In the end, she does learn who’s behind the deaths and the attempts on Michael’s life.
One of the important elements in this story is the inter-relationships among the members of the Redfield family. On that level, this is an ugly custody battle that’s all about money; and for some people, Michael’s simply a pawn in the game. In that sense, this is a sad story.
That said though, as Christine gets to know the other characters, we see that they have some complexity. She finds that some of them are more trustworthy than they seem on the surface, and some cannot be trusted. I won’t say more for fear of spoilers, as Nikas uses the ‘slow reveal’ strategy to add tension to the plot. Suffice it that not everyone is what she or he seems to be.
There is an element of romance in this novel; readers who do not like love stories woven into their crime novels will notice this. Christine has more than one admirer, including Geoffrey Redfield and Spiro Skouras, and one of the plot threads concerns her relationships with these men. That said though, the ‘love angle’ falls out naturally from the plot. As an aside, readers who prefer their novels not to be explicit will be pleased to know that as far as the romance sub-plot goes, the story is more or less ‘family friendly.’
So is the mystery plot. There is violence (it’s a murder story), and there are some dangerous situations. But the violence is not brutal. What’s more, readers who are tired of the ‘female in jeopardy’ plot element will be pleased to know that although Christine does find herself in more than one very risky situation, she is quite capable of taking care of herself.
This is a very sad story in some ways. A family is torn apart because of money, and a young boy is in the middle of it all. And there’s even deeper sadness when we learn the truth. But at the same time, this isn’t a bleak, noir story. Readers who prefer their crime fiction to be dark and very gritty will notice that this story doesn’t ‘go there.’ It’s not a ‘jolly romp,’ though.
The story is told in first person from Christine’s point of view, so we learn quite a bit about her. She’s had her own sorrow in life, but she’s trying to get past it, and she doesn’t indulge in self-pity. She is intelligent and observant, but she knows that she’s not a professional detective. She’s willing enough to let Mavros and his team conduct the murder investigation, but she is determined do make sure that Michael will be all right. In fact you could argue that that’s her primary motivation in getting involved in the case in the first place.
The story takes place on Corfu, and Nikas places the reader on the island in several different ways. The physical and geographical descriptions, the culture and lifestyle, the food, and the language all reflect that part of Greece. Readers who have been to Corfu will find the setting very familiar. Readers who haven’t will get a sense of what it might be like to visit.
The Divided Child is a domestic drama that plays out in a distinctive setting. It features a protagonist whose interest in a child’s welfare gets her more than she bargained for, and a mystery that connects family past with the present. But what’s your view? Have you read The Divided Child? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 9 March/Tuesday 10 March – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie – Alan Bradley
Monday 16 March/Tuesday 17 March – Through the Cracks – Honey Brown
Monday 23 March/Tuesday 24 March – The Nameless Dead – Brian McGilloway