Written by Elizabeth Little — Dear Daughter is one of those debut crime novels that arrives with the sort of buzz that guarantees it will get noticed in a busy period for major new titles. The blurbs from genre giants Kate Atkinson and Tana French suggest that Elizabeth Little may be the next big thing. Are they right? Quite possibly.
Taken on its own terms, Dear Daughter is certainly a triumph and Janie Jenkins is a wonderful creation. With this sassy, unpredictable heroine, as well as the pungent humour and a seedy story involving a 30-year-old family mystery, this novel about a socialite suspected of murdering her mother zings along and will quickly have you addicted.
Featuring chapters interspersed with TMZ news reports, blog posts and Wikipedia entries that record sartorial details such as the McQueen outfit that Janie wore to court, the novel feels contemporary without ever straining for a modish approach that would probably make it seem dated by the time the paperback appears next summer.
The story also switches back to 2003 when the teenage Janie Jenkins emerges as the latest It Girl from LA. She dates a bad boy musician, gets her photo in celebrity magazines and becomes addicted to booze and pills. She’s also dedicated to loathing her cold hearted mother, whose charity work is as cynical as her habit of marrying wealthy financiers. So when the mother ends up dead from a shotgun wound and leaves the name ‘Jane’ written in blood, the daughter ends up a key suspect.
The problem is that Janie, bleary from her addictions on the night of the murder, is not entirely sure if she’s innocent or guilty. The cops find enough evidence – including Janie’s outspoken hatred of her mother – to charge her and she ends up in court in a murder trial that transfixes America. Millions of TV viewers and avid celebrity watchers are ready to believe the bitchy girl with the privileged lifestyle is a cold-blooded killer.
So when she’s released from prison after 10 years on a legal technicality, the media are desperate to get her story. One particular true crime blogger is obsessed with Janie’s case and insists that she got away with murder. With the help of her lawyer and a radical haircut, Janie flees California and is supposed to be seeking anonymity when the pull of the mystery surrounding her mother’s murder diverts her to a former gold mining town in the middle of nowhere.
Little handles this opening with some style, introducing the breezy, self-aware narrative from Janie alongside her back story and a tense journey during which she feels like the world is watching her. Janie is a decade behind everyone else so the prevalence of camera phones and social media gives her reason to be worried about being caught. But she’s also picked up a few survival tips from prison.
Based on an overhead conversation between her mother and a mystery man on the night of the murder, Janie ends up in the Midwestern town of Ardelle. It has a sister town the other side of the mountain called Adeline, which is the name that Janie overheard that fateful night. Adeline is inaccessible and abandoned but there are trips to the ghost town laid on during Janie’s visit, which coincides with the annual Gold Rush Days festival. Janie is posing as a historian – she even dresses drably – in an effort to pull off her investigation into the Adeline mystery.
At this point Dear Daughter becomes so dizzying and enthralling that the sheer unreality of it all hardly matters. With a plot that draws on the 19th century gold rush and features ancient family rivalries, hidden letters, coded diaries, secret relatives, forbidden love and even the odd disguise, the novel feels like a Gothic tale of self-discovery for the digital age.
Janie is a sharp and distinctive voice throughout Dear Daughter, though the book falls a little short as a work of fiction: as a narrative it can at times be glib and overly dependant on quick-witted dialogue. Nevertheless, Little’s supremely readable debut is smart, funny and all set up for a sequel. I’ll certainly be reading it.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars