Friday, March 31, 2017


TALL OAKS by Chris Whitaker (twenty7, 2016)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Everyone has a secret in Tall Oaks ... When three-year-old Harry goes missing, the whole of America turns its attention to one small town. Everyone is eager to help. Everyone is a suspect.

Desperate mother Jess, whose grief is driving her to extreme measures. Newcomer Jared, with an easy charm and a string of broken hearts in his wake. Photographer Jerry, who's determined to break away from his controlling mother once and for all. And, investigating them all, a police chief with a hidden obsession of his own ... 

This is a tremendously engaging debut novel that brings a quirky small-town to vivid and humorous life, pulls you along through its offbeat characters as much as the crime plot, and is unafraid to take the reader into some dark places in among a regular supply of laughs.

Tall Oaks is a typical American small town, full of atypical people. It's a tight-knit community where people know each other and care about each other. The opposite of a city packed with humanity, but where everyone passes by each others' lives without little to no connection. But the flipside is that while the Tall Oaks residents know a lot about each other, they don't know everything. Everyone has secrets, and the idea that you know someone can make it easy to overlook what you don't know.

The setting - both place and the characters who inhabit it - is the real star of TALL OAKS. Whitaker has a lovely touch for detail, and bringing oddball characters to life. At times it can feel a little affected, or that the author might have been trying too hard to have a collection of oddballs, but the writing is so good that he draws you into the characters' worlds, and they end up being well-rounded human beings that we care for, rather than just caricatures with interesting or memorable quirks.

An example is Manny, an awkward teenager who dresses in a fedora and suit and tries to shake down local businesses because he's desperate to be a real-life gangster overflowing with status and respect. Manny's antics are laughable, at times over-the-top, but there's a real humanity to the character too. There are reasons that he's the way he is, reasons that make us empathize, that make us care

Whitaker does a fine job drip-feeding information into the storyline. We get to know the characters over time, rather than by expository info-dumps, so our feelings towards them evolve as the pages turn. There's a really nice organic build to TALL OAKS. I can see why some people have compared the book to the television show Twin Peaks (although it's different in many ways) - there is that 'quirky strange small town place where bad things have happened' vibe.

Without giving too much of the plot away, I was really impressed by the direction in which Whitaker took readers. At times I thought things were maybe veering a little obvious, but he trod a fine line in terms of keeping things a bit edgy and uncertain, and was unafraid go down a bumpier road.

This book was recommended to me by a very knowledgeable crime critic, Liz Barnsley, who was effusive in her praise when I saw her at Harrogate last July. I believe Liz later listed TALL OAKS as her top read of last year, and while I wouldn't quite go that far myself (rating a few others ahead of it), it was among my best reads of 2016, and one I have no hesitation highly recommending.

Whitaker is a fresh and intriguing new voice in crime fiction, and it'll be exciting to see where he'll take us next. I'll certainly be reading whatever he releases next.

Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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