“Teenage girls can do some pretty awful things…”
- Book: Sweet Little Lies
- Location: Ohio
- Author: Karin Nordin
Having read ‘Where Ravens Roost’ the debut novel by author Karin Nordin, back in 2021, I was hoping that her punchy writing style and dour storylines had remained a constant, as both had resonated with me, instantly making hers a name in my mind, which is synonymous with a good, twisty psychological thriller.
If anything, ‘Sweet Little Lies’ was an even more intense and edge-of-my-seat experience, which I can honestly say was not over until the very last word of the final page, so make sure you keep reading and assume nothing!
In a story where no one is innocent, everyone has either committed, been a party to, or concealed at least one crime. But which one of them is guilty of THE crime?
It is almost fifteen years since Amber Wicker was killed and her mutilated body found in Wynwood Forest, on the same evening as her sister Lexi’s High School Homecoming Dance. Amber was the youngest of two sisters, although Alexander (Lexi) was less than one year older, so they had spent most of their lives together, hanging out with the same group of friends. The girls had been adopted at a young age by their stepfather, Chief of Police, Michael Wicker, when he married their mother Audrey. Swiftly, and based on some very obvious, but unconfirmed and badly investigated evidence, Lexi’s boyfriend Riley, who comes from the wrong side of the tracks, had been arrested and convicted of Amber’s murder. Lexi knows that Riley’s adoptive parents had taken on as many children as the authorities would allow, for no other reason than the monetary gain which came with them. All the children had been unwanted, unloved and abused at every opportunity, however Lexi truly believed that Riley had broken the mould and had decided on higher moral standards by which to live his own life. Murder definitely wouldn’t have figured in his plan, surely?
Audrey never comes to terms with the loss of Amber, who could do no wrong in her mother’s eyes, to the point where she ostracises Lexi, who loses her rock and only ally, her stepfather Michael, when he is suddenly taken from them too. Without the support and encouragement of her father, Lexi is treated as a pariah and outcast by most of the townsfolk and never fulfils her true potential, ending up working as a part-time caretaker in the very high school she and Amber had attended all those years ago. Still crippled by guilt, struggling with her own sexuality and ridiculed by a whole new generation of Braxton Falls teenagers, Lexi also faces unwanted attention from her new boss, the school’s principal Richard Henson, her former history teacher.
So why now, after all these years and at the eleventh hour, does Riley contact Lexi with a message so cryptic it is obvious that he wants her to visit him. Against her better judgement, Lexi makes a trip to the prison, where Riley is adamant that he did not do Amber any harm and is determined to sow the seeds of doubt in Lexi’s mind. As Lexi begins to trace Amber’s movements, back on that fateful evening, she knows she has only a matter of days to find proof of Riley’s innocence, if indeed any exists. She also has to try to keep hidden her own terrible secret from that same night, even though it was made through ignorance, rather than a conscious choice.
Little does Lexi know just how many others have secrets they would rather remain buried and how much criminal activity, totally unrelated to Amber’s murder, she is going to uncover during her investigation. Lexi may indeed be ridding the local community of the scourge of society, but at what cost to herself?
Even for its generous 400 or so printed pages, this book was broken up into more than the usual number of short, punchy and well-signposted chapters – beginning ten days before E day, with interspersed chapters taken from the time shortly before the original murder fifteen years ago and leading up to that life-changing event, which divided a community. The majority of the narration is heard through the voice of Lexi, although the perspective does change in the final few chapters. Unorthodox maybe and I’m not going to divulge in whose voice we hear those unexpected words, but it will all make perfect sense and probably shock you, when you get to it. There are several strands to the storyline, with each one being more twisted than the last, which made it no surprise that there was never going to be a gentle dovetailing as they came together, but more of a ‘What The….?’ moment, when the full picture hit me right between the eyes, in the very last line of the book!
The multi-layered storyline is tense, with an atmosphere of constant suspicion pervading lives made dour and lugubrious by the weight of secrets which have remained long hidden, but which are now about to be unearthed and re-hashed in the name of ‘justice’. So many social mores are also brought into sharp focus as the layers are peeled back and trigger points are ignited as the lies are exposed. Tales of sibling rivalries and small town thoughts and ideals surface. The post murder trauma of losing a child leading to a sad descent into the oblivion of alcoholism. Cowardice in the face of possible miscarriages of justice. Confronting and facing up to ones sexuality and the potential consequences. Losing the life of an unborn baby through ignorance. The deviancy of paedophilia by one in a position of trust and high esteem. And not least, the all-consuming rage and lust for revenge which has lain dormant for half a lifetime but which will be avenged at all costs.
I have read so many excellent psychological thrillers where I have met whole casts of characters I could only love to hate. However, this story takes that feeling to a whole new level, with author Karin Nordin ably managing quite a large and disparate gathering of volatile, complex, malevolent, duplicitous and untrustworthy examples of the worst of humanity. With all their names on my suspect list, it soon became apparent that they all had one thing in common, the need to make certain that none of their co-conspirators spoke out of turn or gave anything away, no matter whose shoulders they had to stand on, so to do. It would have been nice to have met at least one person with a modicum of genuine and reliable authenticity, however, that wasn’t to be. Lexi is someone more to be admired than liked, with her confused emotions pulling her in all directions, which makes ‘doing the right thing’ all the more difficult and something she might well live to regret. Revenge and retribution were the only constants among this group of acquaintances, with one of them totally manipulating and orchestrating events for their own ends.
As an avid ‘armchair traveller’, despite being confined to one location, I was quite surprised to find myself relatively satisfied with my journey into small town Ohio, USA. With its mix of real and fictional locations, author Karin Nordin set about using the full palette of words at her disposal to introduce me to life in the relatively isolated and fairly non-descript town of Braxton Falls, where any status or respect depended very much on which side of the track you lived, the middle-class north, or its decidedly poor relation to the south. The descriptive quality of her words imbued a genuine sense of time and place, which was immersive to the point of being claustrophobic, sucking me in like quicksand and reluctant to let me leave when it was all over.. or at least I might have thought and hoped it was all over!
This story was predominantly all about the characters, their relationships to one another and the events which had brought them together after such a long time, so location was never really going to be a dominating factor, except for the forest, which everyone seemed to be drawn to like a magnet. If only those trees could have talked!
What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every new book I read, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who fire my imagination, stir my emotions and stimulate my senses. This story definitely had the power to evoke so many feelings, that I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor the next. Karin offered me a ticket to hell and I only thank goodness that for me, unlike others, it wasn’t a one-way journey!