British author Alex Marwood (a pseudonym for UK journalist Serena Mackesy) hits her stride with this uncompromising mystery. What happens to two 11-year-old girls convicted of murdering a young child? They grow up. Shielded by the British system of sending youthful offenders back into society with new names and identities, Jade and Bel are settled far away from each other. But murder in a picturesque coastal village brings them together 25 years later in a terrifying way.
Wicked Girls is set in the seaside village of Whitmouth, England. A resort town that’s showing its age. Whitmouth depends on vacationing tourists for its survival, but it’s an uneasy dynamic between hard-vacationing tourists and the underpaid locals tired of cleaning up after them. The discovery of a body barely slows down the rowdy crowds who hang out down by the pier and the old-fashioned amusement park called Funnland, but things aren’t that funny when another victim is found. Suspecting a serial killer is on the loose, hoards of reporters descend on the village. All of them are eager to interview Amber Gordon, the park’s cleaning crew supervisor, who discovered a victim in the amusement park’s mirror maze, the corpse garishly multiplied ad infinitum.
Among the media is Kirsty Lindsay, a stringer reporter for a London newspaper. Kirsty recognizes Amber as her partner in crime from long ago, and since conditions of their parole include never seeing each other again, they could both go back to jail if found together.
Characterization drives the plot as the two women desperately struggle to keep their identities hidden. An award-winning reporter, wife, and mother, Kirsty has a lot to lose if her murderous past is revealed. Amber lives a different kind of existence, sharing her small home with Vic Cantrell, a handsome womanizer who works the rides in the amusement park. All she wants is to keep the tiny piece of happiness she has carved out for herself.
Through skillful writing, the town takes on a life of its own. Filled with those crazy names meant to attract tourists and their money, visitors drink at the Koh-Z-Nook, dine in The Best Fish and Chips on the South Coast, and visit Dr. Wicked’s House of Giggles. The contrast between the carefree day trippers and the residents of the town is well drawn and simmers with resentment. The tensions reach a fever pitch when the macabre motive for the murders is revealed. Kirsty and Amber can run or face down their past as it threatens the new lives they’ve built for themselves. Each must make difficult choices as the book races to an emotional finish.