“Extremely readable” – Girl, 11 by Amy Suiter Clarke

IMG_27May2021at145243In many ways, it feels like the premise of Amy Suiter Clarke’s debut novel is so obvious that it’s surprising that hundreds of books with a similar plot don’t exist already.  But as far as I know, they don’t. Girl, 11 sets a true crime podcaster as its central character and has her be the key investigator in solving a cold case. True crime has always been an obsession in our culture, but since the emergence of podcasts and streaming platforms like Netflix it has become an absolute phenomenon and podcasters have become the new celebrities. So if Suiter is one of the first to put a podcaster at the heart of her crime novel, then kudos to her. She’s definitely on to something.

What works best about having Elle Castillo, the host of fictional podcast Justice Delayed, as the main character of this novel is the freedom it gives to the writer. Free from the trappings of research and procedure that can often pin down a police officer protagonist, Elle is free to do whatever she pleases and follow leads wherever they may take her. In the first two thirds of Girl, 11, this makes for a riveting read. Elle is chasing down The Countdown Killer, a serial murderer who was obsessed with numbers and routine, and has seemingly been out of action for a couple of decades. In the novel’s narrative chapters we spend time with Elle as she tries to balance her investigation with her marriage, her friendship with her neighbour, and the important role she plays in her neighbour’s daughter’s life.  Natalie is 11 years old and spends as much time with Elle as she does with her mum. In between these chapters, we read transcripts of an imagined podcast that is documenting the unravelling of The Countdown Killer case.

This format makes for an impressively paced and increasingly tense read. As Elle unravels clues and meets a cast of shady characters who may or may not be involved in the case, we are sucked into the story in the same way we would be if we were listening to a new series of Serial (sorry if my crime podcast knowledge is out of date, I have been trying to listen to fewer stories of buried bodies since the pandemic struck). Suiter balances a need for an intriguing story with a great sense for building her characters. For a long time, this novel is so involving that it starts to feel like a writer who is deep into her career rather than someone putting out an impressive debut.

Unfortunately, though, the novel does falter in its final third. With the introduction of a narrative that focuses on the killer as a character, Suiter seems to want to justify every part of the killer’s modus operandi. It isn’t a problem that she tries to humanise his character, but it is a problem that every action of his has to be justified to the nth degree by something that happened to him as a child. It feels clunky and unbelievable. Added to that, the reappearance of the killer, his choice of the victim, and the revealed truth about Elle, all feel so predictable that the intensity and intrigue of the novel’s first two thirds is overshadowed. By the time the conclusion comes about, the amazing impetus that was built up early doors has waned.

Any Cop?: Despite those concerns, I would be surprised if Girl, 11 doesn’t do incredibly well. It has so many of the ingredients that fans of this genre love and it is extremely readable and well-paced. Problems with endings are also rife in this kind of novel, as the need to balance something that is believable and feels true with something that is new and impactful is tough. I’ve been harsh on Suiter’s climax here, but only because all the work that came before was so good that I wanted much more from the ending.

Fran Slater

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