February 2017, The Year of Needy Girls by Patricia A. Smith (Akashic)
I have a confession to make… I don’t think my February crime read actually counts as a crime novel. Or rather I know it doesn’t, but I think it should.
In my defence the novel’s backbone is the murder of a 10-year old boy in a small town just outside of Boston, however the focus of the action doesn’t lie in solving the crime but on the fallout from this murder and how it affects the community. In many ways I feel this novel represents how crime fiction as a genre is changing and taking on a new level of social awareness and/or responsibility, stepping away from the formulaic murder mystery or whodunit – which is why I am happy to include it in my year of reading crime fiction.
The needy girls of the title, in case you were wondering, are the incumbent high-school sophomore students (that’s Year 11 in the UK) at the exclusive all-girls Brandywine Academy. The title particularly refers to those girls who make up the French class of the focal character – Deirdre Murphy.
So, I hear you ask, what do these needy – yet undoubtedly privileged – girls have to do with the murder of a young boy? Well, largely, nothing. Although the insights we get into the girls as a collective, which come in the form of short chapters about what they think and key events in the school’s social calendar, show that they are perhaps more aware of events than their over-protective parents may hope. Their reaction to the murder of Leo Rivera is, perhaps refreshingly, not just one of fear but of relation. This is significant given Leo is from a very different part of town to them and demonstrates their unawareness of the social divide their families adhere to.
The domain in which the murder and the lives of the girls coincide is, extremely broadly, in terms of sexuality. It is disclosed that 10-year old Leo was raped before he was murdered. Deirdre Murphy, the girl’s beloved French teacher, is an openly gay woman (in a relationship with librarian SJ) to whom many of the girls have formed deep attachments. When Deirdre is suspended after being accused of molesting one of the girls the town erupts: the citizens seem unable or unwilling to distinguish between paedophilia and LGBTQI sexuality.
Although the murder is not the driving force of the narrative, it underpins the action and enables Patricia A. Smith – herself a long-time teacher with an interest in LGBT educators – to explore difficult but pertinent themes. British crime writer Martyn Waites, quoted in The Guardian last month in an article about post-Brexit fiction, claimed that “as a crime writer you’re dealing with life and death – usually murder, because tax fraud is boring – so you’re looking into the society that created the circumstances for that to happen.” I agree, and I also agree that this is increasingly why it is crime fiction, rather than ‘state-of-the-nation’ style literary novels, that are at the forefront of examining and exposing modern life and all its corruption, as well as social injustice.
The Year of Needy Girls by Patricia A. Smith – Published this Thursday (16 February) by Akashic Books 9781617754876 p/b £14.99
Post by Rachel.
In March I will be reading Six Stories by Matt Wesolowski, from Orenda Books: read along?
2 thoughts on “Confessions of a Reluctant Crime Reader no.2: The Year of Needy Girls”
Thank you so much for this generous review!
Thank you Patricia! And thanks for writing such an incredible book.