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Novel set in small town USA

24th March 2018

Tall Oaks by Chris Whitaker, novel set in small town USA.

Winner of the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award

Novel set in small town USA

Whitaker’s debut novel has been compared to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” and there are obvious similarities – both are set in small town America and populated by a host of rather odd characters, who have sinister secrets they are keen to protect. But Tall Oaks lacks the positive elements of David Lynch’s masterpiece – who could forget the wholesome Agent Cooper and his eulogies over real coffee and wonderful cherry pie? Tall Oaks is definitely set in today’s world with its broken families, absent fathers and child abuse often lurking beneath the civilised veneer of wealth. Whitaker undoubtedly brings to life the small-town elements – the claustrophobia and gossip – with money and power serving to encourage people to hide their flaws rather than to seek help.

The novel opens with a chilling chapter where the detective Jim (alas no Agent Cooper) listens to a recording of Jess describing how her three-year-old son, Harry, was abducted from under her nose by someone dressed in a clown suit. A search is immediately instigated and all the residents of the small town get involved, but it becomes quickly apparent that there are no clues. Jess’s desperation grows as time passes and she turns to self-destructive behaviour and to obsessive haunting of her ex-husband while poor Jim rather fruitlessly ploughs through his interminable list of suspects, for almost anyone in this town could be the culprit. Everyone is hiding something and behaving suspiciously. It could be socially dysfunctional oddball, Jerry, who has a desperate secret that only his mother knows, or relative newcomer, Jared, a charmer who has moved from town to town leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake and who has become alienated from his parents because of some unspecified foul deed in his past. And then again, what on earth are Henrietta and Roger (Jess’s aunt and uncle) hiding and could they be involved in the abduction?

The plot does take a while to get underway (page 83 in fact) – there’s a lot of preamble as we are introduced to one set of characters after another, but, to compensate, the ending is clever – a real twist – and certainly not something I had anticipated and the painful final revelation is sensitively handled.

Where Tall Oaks comes into its own, though, is in the characterisation. There are some fascinating albeit often disturbing creations here. Photomax assistant, Jerry, is a sensitive portrayal of what social isolation, parental cruelty and years of bullying can do to an individual but my favourite, by far, is Manny. Manny’s father is long gone and, struggling to find a male identity, he has turned to gangsterism and to attempting to run a protection racket. Although they don’t always sit comfortably with the more tragic elements of the story, some of the scenes where Manny, with his best friend Abe, are in action are brilliantly funny, leaving the reader ultimately with the feeling that Whitaker’s real talent might well lie in comedy.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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