When you read First Born by Will Dean, you will discover that it is a book of two halves – literally. This twisty murder mystery doesn’t so much take unexpected turns as flip a complete 180. Without giving away any spoilers, just when you think this is one kind of story, it turns upside down.
The first half of the novel is a slow burn tale of a young woman trying to figure out who murdered her sister, Katie. Molly suspects that nobody – not her parents nor the police – is telling her the truth about what happened. So naturally, she investigates for herself and the story opens up. Then a wrecking ball shatters all the ideas we have and a pacy psychological thriller sends us on the way to the denouement.
We begin with Molly and Katie Raven. They are identical twins, monozygotic, and to the outside world appear to be two halves of the same person. But Molly, our narrator, knows she and her sister are not alike at all. Their personalities are chalk and cheese. Molly is introverted, anxious and awkward. She hates any kind of fuss, and finds the world and interacting with people difficult. Every time she steps out of the door she has to confront her fear, negotiate a routine and calculate risk. That’s her life.
Katie, on the other hand, is outgoing. Although they’re identical twins, Molly says Katie is prettier, funnier, more open and way more adventurous… perhaps even reckless. The sisters grew up in Nottingham and while Molly now lives in London, Katie has taken a scholarship at Columbia University and moved to Morningside Heights in Manhattan.
Then Molly’s parents call from New York. Katie has been murdered. There are few details but they want her to come straight away. Molly is disturbed because she didn’t sense this and that troubles her. When she arrives in the States her parents still don’t seem to know much more about what happened to Katie. When Molly is interviewed by the police little else becomes clear and the lead detective, called Martinez, is unwilling to open up.
First Born feels like the story of ordinary people caught up in an overwhelming tragedy – a sister who has lost a sibling, parents who have lost a child. Not knowing what happened to Katie builds up the tension and intrigue in the story. You can sense the trauma in the aftermath of her death. Frustrated by the lack of information, Molly takes it upon herself to find answers as no one will tell her anything.
She begins to contact the people in Katie’s life such as her best friend, who is suspicious of Katie’s boyfriend, Scott Sbarra. He was there the night she was killed. Then there’s the landlady and her son Shawn, who has his own secrets, Columbia professor Eugene Groot and the students Katie studied with – each can add a piece to the puzzle. Then Molly meets private detective Bogart de Luca and he tells her he is working for Columbia to ensure that nothing connected to Katie’s case blows back on the university. Molly is suspicious of his motives but he’s the only one who seems to be prepared to help her.
Seeking the truth leads Molly into all sorts of areas. Misogyny, sexual deviation, lover’s jealousy, rivalry, bad luck… the hares are set running. This is a novel of deceit and lies, where everything is smoke and mirrors and we are a long way from the truth.
First Born is a cleverly plotted thriller that fans of the big twist and the totally unexpected will love. Dean generally writes atmospheric police procedurals set in the forests of northern Sweden featuring Tuva Moodyson, including Dark Pines and Red Snow. This is his second standalone venturing into psychological thriller territory, following The Last Thing to Burn. It’s written with verve and is very much about the interplay between reader and author, puzzle and reveal. The central pivot of the novel is a big leap and you will have to see whether or not you can go with it. This type of flip has to be done well and by the time it arrives we think the author will have you committed and comfortable to go with it. Accepting that adds a new layer to the story.
Hodder & Stoughton
CFL Rating: 4 Stars