Here’s a puzzler for a literary parlor game: Can anyone think of a mystery novel set (even partially) at a construction site in which human remains are not accidentally unearthed? Personally, I’m stumped. The “body-at-the-building-site” is such an overused plot contrivance that it practically constitutes its own suspense subgenre. If, to borrow Chekhov’s famous dramatic principle, a loaded rifle placed on the stage in Act One “must go off” by Act Three, so it is that shortly after a backhoe rumbles into a mystery novel, long buried remains must be exhumed.
In Fiona Barton’s new thriller, “The Child,” instead of a backhoe operator, it’s a construction worker wielding a shovel who uncovers an infant’s skeleton. The discovery is made in the back garden of a derelict house in a gentrifying district of Southeast London. Veteran reporter Kate Waters, heroine of Barton’s 2016 debut, “The Widow,” stumbles upon the story one morning while perusing the “News in Brief” section of a rival newspaper. Kate is searching for promising news items to poach because, otherwise, she’ll be stuck in the office doing rewrites of pieces produced by an assembly line of young “online operatives who wrote twenty-four/seven to fill the hungry maw of rolling news.”
As that description suggests, Kate is middle-aged, cranky, and independent. The best moments in “The Child” occur when readers tag along with Kate as she works on identifying the long dead infant by talking her way into pubs and flats and combing through old archives. All the while, she’s also teaching her wide-eyed hipster intern the classic techniques of golden age investigative journalism. Enjoyable as those scenes are, however, the rest of “The Child” should have been sent to the publishing equivalent of Kate’s rewrite desk.
“The Child” is a middling and much-too-long suspense story that would have benefited from a ruthless red-pencil. As she did in “The Widow,” Barton relies on multiple points of view to tell (and retell) the larger story of the “Building Site Baby” as the unidentified infant comes to be known. Three other female characters get drawn into this story by learning about that same news item that piqued Kate’s curiosity. First to appear is a nervous young woman named Emma who’s married to an older professor; like Kate, Emma spots the story in the evening paper and reacts in a gush of purple prose: “I keep reading it over and over. I can’t take it in properly, as if it’s a foreign language. . . . [T]error is coiling around me. Squeezing the air out of my lungs. Making it hard to breathe.”
Before readers can linger overlong on Emma’s extreme reaction, the narrative baton is passed to her mother, a narcissist who goes by the nickname of “Jude.” Some narcissists may be as interesting to other people as they are to themselves, but Jude isn’t one of them: When Emma tells her mother about the ghastly discovery, Jude quickly puts an end to the conversation by saying, “Well, we don’t want to talk about dead babies, do we?”
Angela, an emotionally fragile older woman, is the most sympathetic of the trio. Back in 1970, she gave birth to a baby daughter whom she named Alice. The next day, Alice disappeared from her cot in the hospital. When Angela spots the building-site baby article in the newspaper, she shouts out loud and then insists to her husband, “It’s just after [Alice’s] birthday. That could be a sign.” But the couple has been down this road too many times before. “It will be more heartbreak if you get your hopes up,” advises Angela’s husband. “It’ll make you ill like before.”
Figuring out how all these women are connected — to each other and to the unidentified infant — is the hypothetical draw of this kind of fragmented, multi-perspective type of storytelling. I say “hypothetical draw,” because “The Child” is more tedious than tense. Characters chew over the same events from chapter to chapter until they’re as worn out as a stick of used Trident; even when the final revelation seems undeniably clear to readers, it takes Barton a good 80 pages or so to wrap things up. “The Child” isn’t a terrible novel; it’s simply much too much of a just okay one.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program, “Fresh Air.”
By Fiona Barton
Berkley. 364 pp. $26