“The Wicked Girls” became the British press’ catchphrase for 11-year-old Bel Oldacre and Jade Walker, who were convicted in the mid-1980s of killing a much younger child in this absorbing dark novel of crime and punishment, revenge and forgiveness.

Marwood delivers an insightful psychological study of the two girls and the women they became 25 years later as well as a social commentary on how economics color the way people are judged, the insidious nature of gossip and mob mentality. The brisk plot never falters through its realistic twists.

Bel and Jade’s backgrounds are vastly different. Bel’s upper middle class family is respected in the town. They even have servants and a massive garage filled with 10 cars. Jade’s poor family are outcasts, considered thieves and near criminals. Jade isn’t even allowed in the neighborhood convenience store. But the girls do have one thing in common — both are unloved children, ignored by their families, at best neglected. They meet for the first time one morning in 1985 and become fast friends. By the end of the day, a 6-year-old girl is dead. Each called “the most hated child in Britain,” Bel and Jade are sent to separate juvenile facilities for years and their identities are changed.

After their release, the two have reinvented themselves. Bel is now Amber Gordon, the quiet night supervisor of a cleaning crew for Funnland, a rundown amusement park. She has two little dogs she adores and lives with Vic Cantrell, another Funnland employee given to abusive fits. Jade is now Kirsty Lindsay, a newspaper reporter specializing in crime stories. Kirsty loves her husband, who is out of work, and their two much-loved children. No one, not their families, friends or co-workers knows about their pasts.

Their paths cross when Kirsty covers the murder of a woman, whose body is found on the Funnland grounds. As part of their parole, Kirsty and Amber are forbidden contact with each other, not that either had any desire to see the other. Their meeting will have dire effects on their new lives, and on the investigation when another body is found.

“The Wicked Girls” pacing is whip-smart as Marwood carefully alternates chapters about the women’s current lives with chapters about their childhood and what happened that one day. It’s not lost on Amber that Kirsty is living the life she should have had. Because of her privileged upbringing and “posh” accent, Bel/Amber was considered the instigator; while Jade/Kirsty was, for the first time in her life, given a chance for a future after she served her time.

Marwood perceptively views the economic decline’s effect on small towns in Britain. The down-market Funnland capsulates the “sleazy charm” of an area where jobs are in short supply and works as an opposing metaphor for the women’s lives.

“The Wicked Girls” makes a compelling novel not easily forgotten.


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