Kids killing other kids: The horror always jolts us because we remember childhood games, not murder. Yet the ugly presence of bullying paints a different reality.
In Scottish author Lisa Ballantynes harrowing first novel, 8-year-old Ben Stokes broken body is found at a playground in suburban London. Bens 11-year-old neighbor and occasional playmate Sebastian Croll is accused.
Daniel Hunter is accustomed to youthful punks but is uncertain how to deal with a small boy for a client, especially one so lacking in emotion: Daniel glanced at Sebastian and tried to remember being eleven years old. He remembered being shy to meet adults eyes. ... But Sebastian was confident and articulate. A spark in the boys eyes suggested he was enjoying being questioned, despite the detectives harshness.
The boys nervous mother and aggressive father, whose business travels limit contact with his son, predictably deny Sebastians involvement. Daniel hopes forensic evidence will clear the child. Yet he is chilled by Sebastians interest in the corpse.
When Sebastians father replaces Daniel with a more experienced lawyer, Daniels pride is wounded, but hes distracted by a deathbed letter from the woman who raised him. He has been estranged for years from Minnie, the compassionate farmwoman who took him in after his drug-addicted mother was unable to keep him. Although Daniel had grown to love Minnie during his transition from unhappy tween to responsible young man, he had cut off contact after learning of an unsettling deception. Ignoring her explanation that the lie was meant to shield him, Daniel created a new life, walling off his youthful memories.
Now her final communication stirs recollections.
Daniels youth unfolds in flashback chapters that alternate with Sebastians present-day plight. His past flows into empathy for Sebastian, whose refusal to cooperate with his fathers choice of lawyer brings Daniel back to the case. The boy seems to suggest that his father may have committed domestic abuse. As the trial approaches, the media vilify the child, circumstantial evidence and witness accounts pile up, and Daniel ponders the wisdom of allowing the boy to testify.
Although well-drawn and realistic, the characters are not especially likable, other than the absent Minnie, whose genuine kindness resonates and sharply contrasts with the casual cruelty of others. Readers may see the novels final twist coming, even if Daniel does not. At more than 450 pages, The Guilty One takes the long route to delivering its disturbing story, and some judicious editing could have pared the tale without affecting its punch. But Ballantynes crisp, reflective writing carries the tale and promises future enjoyment, especially if applied to topics not quite so grim.