Twelve-year-old Sophie and her mother, Amelia-Rose, move to London from Massachusetts where they meet the charismatic Matty Melgren, who quickly becomes an intrinsic part of their lives. But as the relationship between the two adults fractures, a serial killer begins targeting young women with a striking resemblance to Amelia-Rose.
When Matty is eventually sent down for multiple murder, questions remain as to his guilt — questions which ultimately destroy both women. Nearly twenty years later, Sophie receives a letter from Battlemouth Prison informing her Matty is dying and wants to meet. It looks like Sophie might finally get the answers she craves. But will the truth set her free — or bury her deeper?
I found this a truly compelling read, shot through with moments of fascination and revulsion. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that looks at serial murder from this perspective. I remember reading one of Sue Townsend’s first Adrian Mole books, set in the early eighties they cover a period when Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, was eventually caught. Adrian observed in his diary that his wife must have known what her husband was. Or did she think ‘Peter home covered in blood, says he was run over by an offal cart’. Humour aside, we often think this when serial killers are caught and it turns out they’ve been a ‘normal family man’ at home. We want our killers to be monsters, strange looking loners, men who have always ‘kept to themself’. It’s unimaginable to think they might have murdered, then gone home and had a family barbecue. This is such rich territory to exploit and Victoria Selman has done it beautifully here in her narrator Sophie and in her creation of Matty Melgren.
I’m going to share a personal response to one of the aspects of the book I found so beautifully constructed that it rang completely true. My ex-partner was emotionally and psychologically abusive. We were together five years and I had therapy for several years afterwards to feel completely myself again. I’d been gaslighted for so long that my sense of self was broken and I didn’t even trust my own judgement anymore. People always ask why you stay with someone like this and the answer is always that they weren’t like this at first. People like this know how to manipulate, to love-bomb you at first and charm everyone around you. The change is subtle, barely noticeable. Then if you do notice, it was a joke or it came out wrong. By the time they really show their true colours you’re so nervous, under confident and broken that you see yourself differently. Maybe you deserve this? Maybe this is just what relationships are like. The author captures this perfectly in Matty Melgren’s relationship with Sophie’s mum, Ams. Told from Sophie’s perspective, Matty dances her mother round the living room and leaves her loving little Post-It notes, surprises her with flowers and takes her breakfast in bed. Sophie describes the change:
“Things started to change; gradually, the way the tide comes in. Inching closer so you don’t notice it until your shorts are wet and your sandcastle’s a shrinking mound.’
We see Ams start to doubt herself. One scene that really unsettled me for being exactly what my ex would do concerned Ams getting dressed for a works drink party. She puts on a red dress that’s off the shoulder and Sophie thinks she looks pretty. Matty agrees, but wonders whether she might want to wear something ‘less showy’ for a party her boss is attending. She has a black tunic, but it’s a bit frumpy. She puts on the black and leaves for her party and once she’s gone Sophie challenges him. She thought her mum looked pretty in the red. ‘Me too’ Matty replied, commenting that she ought to have more confidence in herself. It’s subtle, but it has Ams doubting her judgement and is driving a wedge between her and her daughter. He encourages Sophie in rebellion and cheeky come backs. Sophie’s fear that he will leave like her father, is a easy thing to exploit and he does. He uses Sophie to pile shame on her mother when she’s ‘demanding’ which translates as Ams asking for her needs to be met. I found his manipulation of Sophie uncomfortable reading, but Sophie presents it differently. She blames her burgeoning hormones and admits it might have been an unconscious desire to draw him to her and isolate her mother. It’s perhaps the success of this bonding process that makes Matty think he can push the boundaries; to exploit her age and natural curiosity in an uncomfortable and completely inappropriate way.
In between Sophie’s story, are contemporary opinions of Matty Melgren and those around him. There are also the terrible facts about the murders and the female victims who are otherwise eclipsed by the fascination into how the killer’s mind worked. I loved the way the author would juxtapose events to place a spotlight on the killings. It brought up a feeling of revulsion, even though the two events are really unrelated. What Sophie and Ams were doing while these murders took place has no connection, but somehow we feel it and it’s a technique many newspapers use to push their agenda. Ams is creaming butter and sugar to make a birthday cake, with the radio playing in the background reporting that two more bodies had been found strangled by their underwear and one almost decapitated by a shovel. Sophie connects the timing years later. Matty suggested that they celebrate Sophie’s birthday properly and make a fuss. Ams thinks that she’s creating patterns that weren’t there, but it’s easy to see why. She’s remembering them, obliviously celebrating her birthday, while two women lay brutalised and their killer was sat charming her school friends.
Sophie couldn’t possibly have known, but she’s heard so much criticism over the years that she’s internalised it. Why didn’t she know? They must have been stupid not to see it. She’s still being manipulated and gaslighted, this time by the press and general public. The tension builds, compelling the reader on towards a resolution to Sophie’s musings and to her scheduled prison visit. It’s an insight into how murder destroys two families, that of the victim but also that of the murderer. Being left with all these internal questions and a sort of survivor’s guilt. I wondered whether it is ever possible to go through an experience like this and trust a man again. Would Sophie have been able to live a normal life after this experience in her formative years? Victoria Selman has written a novel that made me feel so many different things and had enough psychological trauma to keep a counsellor like me thinking long after the book was closed. She also deserves congratulations for concluding it in a way I never saw coming.
Published by Quercus 7th July 2022
Meet The Author
Victoria Selman is the author of the critically acclaimed Ziba MacKenzie series. Her debut novel, Blood for Blood, was shortlisted for the prestigious CWA Debut Dagger Award and an Amazon Charts #1 bestseller for five weeks, selling over half a million copies.
Victoria has written for the Independent, co-hosts Crime Time FM with critics, Barry Forshaw and Paul Burke, compiles the Afraid of the Light charity anthology series and was shortlisted for the 2021 CWA Short Story Dagger Award.
Her first standalone thriller, TRULY DARKLY DEEPLY, is being published by Quercus in July 2022.