The Rumour

Lesley Kara

Bantam Press, £12.99

Reviewed by Susan Swarbrick

IN 1969, Sally McGowan stabbed five-year-old Robbie Harris to death in a derelict house when she herself was just 10. Almost half a century later, rumours begin swirling that she is living under a new identity in a sleepy seaside town.

It starts with hushed whispers at the school gate, idle gossip to pass the time. When young mother Joanna Critchley hears the disquieting murmurings, she makes an innocent, throwaway remark that unintentionally fans the flames. Could there really be a notorious child killer in their midst?

At first, she laughs off the suggestion. But a seed has been planted in her mind. As the pitchfork-and-torches-wielding mob swings into action, Joanna has her own ideas about who Sally might be.

She delves into the history of a sensational case that divided the nation: was the girl at its centre a cold-blooded psychopath or the victim of abusive parents and a long history of neglect? Sally had always claimed it was a game that went wrong, but no one believed her.

Joanna’s journalist partner Michael does his own digging and what he uncovers only serves to confirm the growing suspicions. Yet throwing opening this Pandora’s Box is not without peril, threatening to unleash bone-chilling secrets from which there is no going back.

Lesley Kara’s debut thriller is loosely inspired by the real-life case of Mary Bell. In 1968, Bell strangled to death two boys in Newcastle upon Tyne. She was convicted of the manslaughter of Martin Brown, who was four, and three-year-old Brian Howe.

Bell herself was just 10 at the time when the first boy died. Since her release from prison in 1980, she has lived under a series of pseudonyms. Her identity has been protected by a court order, which has also been extended to protect the identity of her daughter.

The Rumour is a galloping read that will be right up the alley of those who loved Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins.

It was snapped up by Transworld Publishers as part of a two-book deal earlier this year. The screen rights were won by Cuba Pictures, the producers of BBC drama McMafia, in a six-way auction.

Kara is said to have drawn inspiration from her own reaction after hearing from an acquaintance that an individual who had once committed a heinous and infamous crime was allegedly living as a protected person in a safe house within her neighbourhood.

For days afterwards, she found herself looking at neighbours or strangers in the street a little more closely than usual. Whenever Kara saw someone of the right gender and age, her mind would whirr with possibility.

The Rumour taps into these unsettling feelings, treading the often-precarious line between what is considered in the public interest and plain old nosiness. All too quickly a seemingly innocent piece of gossip can mutate into a monstrous rumour with catastrophic consequences.

Kara has a canny knack for psychological suspense and lays down a clever jigsaw puzzle where the final missing pieces remain elusive right up until the last page. Buckle up.