Review of Whistle in the Dark, by Emma Healey

Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing was a most affecting story portraying a dementia sufferer trying to solve two different mysteries, one the absence of her best friend and the other what happened to her sister in 1946, which gave it an arresting backstory as well. I loved it and was so eager to read the author’s latest that I ordered Whistle in the Dark from England. It offers a now familiar plot – but one that provides scope for almost endless development. A child goes missing and after some period of time returns, but strangely altered and unwilling or unable describe where the child has been and what happened. Some I’ve enjoyed are Sarah Denzil’s Silent Child, Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, and David Bell’s Cemetary Girl. Usually there are evidences of physical or sexual abuse as well. Whistle in the Dark is an innovative variant of the formula. Jen is an older mum in her early fifties, living in London and married to Hugh, an ultra-laid-back property surveyor whose calm forms a nice contrast to his excitable wife. Whilst on a painting holiday in the Peak District with her younger daughter, the 15 year old Leah, the girl disappears for four days, and then is found by a farmer wandering in a field, rather the worse for wear with a head laceration that left a scar and strange ligature marks on her ankles. In hospital Leah refuses a rape examination as unnecessary and insists that nothing happened during her absence, but refuses to supply any details at all. Had she been involved with Matthew, a teen her age whose parents run the holiday camp and seems to have been taken with her, or with Stephen, a young man in his twenties who belongs to a religious society called the New Lollards with overtones of a cult – one of the legends of the district is a story going back to the Middle Ages about a lost child who visits Hell and comes back to warn the living.

Jen also has an older daughter, Meg, who is in her twenties, a lesbian pregnant by artificial insemination, who also acts as a stabilising influence of Jen, as like so many suspicious parents of teens, she tries to spy on Leah and discover her secret. There is also a reappearance of Stephen, whose cult may still be interested in the girl. And then there’s the backstory of the mysterious stranger on a train who gave the infant Leah her name. In the end Jen indeed finds out at first hand what happened to her daughter, and it is an absolutely terrifying denouement, but one that leads to a most satisfying conclusion to the story that is totally in character with Leah and her mother. This is another book I shall reflect on a lot.

And yet, I cannot imagine reading it again all the way through. Not only is it a very ‘slow burner’ (like making stock from beef bones) but there are simply too many plot elements there for no other reason than to be red herrings. Of course mystery story readers always remind us that these are necessary items, which they are. But in serious fiction -and that is the calibre one expects of Emma Healey – readers expect that these extraneous elements will contribute either to the plot or development of the characters. These, in Whistle in the Dark, lead absolutely nowhere, and serve only to make the book longer, not to contribute to the resolution or explanation of Leah’s disappearance. And too much of the dialogue between Leah and Jen simply expresses the usual disdain a teen displays towards a parent on most occasions, even when no disappearance is involved. So no fifth star.

I was amused by a couple of items tho’. In her investigations to discover what happened to her daughter, Jen finds a most unusual employment of condoms! (Funnier with the English emphasis on both syllables.) And when Jen and Hugh make the alarming discovery that Leah is buying religious books, he marks disarmingly: “How d’you know the books aren’t for school, for RS or RE, or whatever it’s called now?” (Maybe we Yanks are indeed better off believing that our Constitution forbids our government schools teaching any moral or religious values. My impression is that Religious Education in English state schools serves largely to vaccinate pupils against believing in anything at all. Seems to be working, too.)