|WE BEGIN AT THE END
Zaffre Books (www.zaffrebooks.co.uk)
Walker has been Cape Haven’s Chief of Police for over twenty years. In the sleepy California coastal town, his job consists mainly of being nice to tourists, and keeping an eye on his old friend Star Radley and her two kids: thirteen-year-old Duchess and five-year-old Robin. Walk feels an obligation to Star: it was, after all, he who found the body of her younger sister Sissy when they were fifteen years old. He, too, who had discovered that his best friend, Vincent King, had accidentally killed the girl, and turned him in to the police, resulting in a thirty-year stretch in prison for Vincent. Within days of Vincent’s release and return to Cape Haven, Star Radley has been murdered and Duchess and Robin have been sent to live with their grandfather in the wilds of Montana. Walk is convinced that the culprit is Dickie Darke, the club owner and local property magnate who Star has been seeing on and off for years. But Dickie is connected to all the wrong people, and Walk is quickly out of his depth, hoping beyond hope that he has done enough to keep his friend’s children safe.
I fell in love with Chris Whitaker’s writing more or less immediately upon starting to read his debut novel, Tall Oaks. What sold it for me were Whitaker’s characters, their quirks and the relationships that had obviously grown up over time between them. I was less enamoured of his second novel, All the Wicked Girls, which felt to me like a rewrite of Tall Oaks, without the quirkiness that had made his debut stand out. So I wasn’t sure what to expect going in to We Begin at the End, especially when it opens on a hunt for a missing girl. Needless to say, my fears were unfounded, and Whitaker has produced a crime novel on a par with Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, both in terms of plotting, and of the writing: reading Whitaker’s prose puts one in mind of McCarthy or James Lee Burke, old hands who have seen it all and honed their craft over decades of writing. When you see a picture of Whitaker, and realise that he’s barely out of his teens, it comes as a huge surprise and leaves the reader with a sense of awe at the pure talent that this young man possesses.
We Begin at the End draws us in from the outset through a cast of fully-realised characters, most particularly the two main protagonists: Chief Walker, Walk, is old before his time, crippled by encroaching illness and by a lack of experience in real life police work, despite his long service; Duchess is young and ballsy, a self-proclaimed outlaw, she is determined to do things her way, without help from anyone else, all in the name of protecting her brother and giving him some kind of “normal” life. As the story progresses, both these characters grow to understand their limitations, and to accept help from those around them, to accept that they are not alone and that their most damaging characteristic is one and the same for both: their own pride, which won’t allow them to accept kindness from others.
While a crime is committed – a woman lies dead in her kitchen as proof of this, and the man who accidentally killed her sister thirty years earlier is found at the scene, her blood on his hands – it is secondary to the driving force of the novel, the thing that keeps us glued to the page which is, surprisingly, the personal development of Walk and Duchess – their parallel journeys – as they grow and adapt to the constantly-changing world around them. There’s enough doubt sown to make us question whether Vincent King did actually kill Star Radley, or whether Dickie Darke is as evil as Walk seems to want to believe, but the beauty in Whitaker’s writing, his elegant prose and deep understanding of just how people really interact, means that we can go entire chapters without worrying about whether we’ll actually get a solution in the end (we will, you’ll be pleased to hear) while we revel, for example, in how Duchess handles her prom.
Sure to become an instant classic, We Begin at the End will be mentioned in the same breath as some of the giants of the genre, from Burke’s Dave Robichaux novels to Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair and Connolly’s Charlie Parker series. There’s a lyrical beauty to Whitaker’s writing, a sense of an author who has honed his skill over decades rather than years. We should, I think, be grateful that he seems so prolific, as he’s the type of author from whom you might expect to see one book every ten or fifteen years. He is, to repeat something of an overused cliché, something of a national treasure, and should be on everyone’s reading list, regardless of their views on crime or genre fiction. You’re unlikely to find a better-written book this year or, more importantly, a more enjoyable and intriguing one.