Kids killing other kids: The horror always jolts us because we remember childhood games and giggled secrets, not murder, yet the ugly presence of bullying paints a different reality. In Scottish author Lisa Ballantyne’s harrowing first novel, 8-year-old Ben Stokes is the victim, his broken body found at a local playground in suburban London. Ben’s 11-year-old neighbor and occasional playmate Sebastian Croll is accused of the crime.
Daniel Hunter, Sebastian’s lawyer, has represented gun-toting teens, streetwise juveniles who steal for drugs. He’s accustomed to youthful punks but is uncertain how to deal with a small boy for a client, especially one so lacking in emotion over a fresh tragedy: “Daniel glanced at Sebastian and tried to remember being eleven years old. He remembered being shy to meet adults’ eyes. He remembered nettle stings and being badly dressed. . . . But Sebastian was confident and articulate. A spark in the boy’s eyes suggested he was enjoying being questioned, despite the detective’s harshness.”
The boy’s nervous mother and aggressive father, whose business travels limit contact with his son, predictably deny Sebastian’s involvement. Daniel hopes forensic evidence will clear the child. Yet he is chilled by Sebastian’s macabre interest in the corpse.
When Sebastian’s father replaces Daniel with a more experienced lawyer, Daniel’s pride is wounded, but he’s 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 of the farm where an elderly goat, a dog-pound refugee, a small flock of chickens and an angry boy all flourished under Minnie’s tending. She coped with tragedies by fostering a succession of children, all of them girls until Daniel arrived.
Daniel’s youth unfolds in flashback chapters that alternate with Sebastian’s present-day plight. His past flows into empathy for Sebastian, whose refusal to cooperate with his father’s 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 in “The Guilty One” are not especially likable, other than the absent Minnie, whose genuine kindness to all creatures resonates and sharply contrasts with the casual cruelty of others. Readers may see the novel’s 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 Ballantyne’s crisp, reflective writing carries the tale and promises future enjoyment, especially if applied to topics not quite so grim.
Blumenstock is a Washington writer.
THE GUILTY ONE
By Lisa Ballantyne
Morrow. 453 pp. Paperback, $14.99