When She Was Good

When reviewing The Secrets She Keeps, Queensland Reviewers Collective’ writer Angela Marie raised the issue of secrecy as a concept and, depending on the secret to a lesser or greater degree of seriousness, introduced the concept of the Lie. In the context of Michael Robotham’s writing, the Lie partners the Secret in the literary dance, the former building an outer protective shell to make a comfortable home for the latter. This is very clearly the case in the present volume.

As the plot develops the Secret and the Lie interact inexorably if not predictably.
We experience a seesawing of emotion between empathy, sympathy and abhorrence, joy and shock, and reaffirm that childhood neglect and abuse are catalysts that construct the adult psyche. The sheer evil of human intent leaves behind a trail of the walking wounded… The reader sees into the mind of evil but is powerless to intercede (Angela Marie).

When She Was Good is all about secrecy and lies. Much of the groundwork is laid out in Good Girl, Bad Girl where crimes have been committed but the balance of good has not been regained. We have become familiar with leading characters such as Cyrus and Evie. Cyrus is a tortured soul, coping as best he can with the horrific loss of his family, yet struggling to do good with the children in his charge. Much of Cyrus Haven is developed in Good Girl, Bad Girl from which we read that “experience has bestowed [on him] relatability to the wounded rather than judgment” (Angela Marie). The truth of this point of view is played out in When She Was Good in which Haven, ignoring Evie’s warning that his digging into her past will get her killed rather than acquire her freedom, disturbs the well embedded secrets of powerful men. The Lie must protect the secret; the girl, who knows the secret, must be killed.

Evie comes to us well formed but scarred yet unbroken. She is a fighter with wits razor keen and nimble. She has the foresight that guides the novel and is shown to have the judgment to extricate herself from dubious, and ultimately dire, situations that come her way. She is rough in language and uncouth in behaviour, with the ability to know immediately when someone is lying to her. At times we recognize in this novel the same manifestations that Angela Marie reported in her analysis of Good Girl, Bad Girl, that the novel has “elevations of hope and possibility and redemption, and an extreme sense of loyalty… But we cannot shake off the gritty shroud that envelops the tale… the users, purveyors and recruiters will have their way. For a time.” That time is realized in When She Was Good, but in a way the reader does not see coming until the last possible moment.

What do we really think of Cyrus and Evie and the minor characters Sascha and Lennie? We begin to get answers about the main characters as they have been familiar to us from at least one earlier book. It could be argued that Cyrus is a slightly changed version of Joe O’Loughlin, if we don’t push the similarity too far. Evie has had some degree of development also, but maintains the characteristic of quixoticism. We know that she will take a completely unexpected action or make a remark that shocks but delights – that is in her genetic makeup. But we still have not found the complete answer to the question, who is Evie? Sascha is a difficult woman to know but consistency in good behaviour and the effects of adversity brought on often by Cyrus’s bumbling, misdirected loyalty overcome her initial reserve. It is in the character of Lennie, a police officer who has known Cyrus for much of his life, that we see defined the crippling effect of rules and regulations cramping the thinking of the officer who has grown in the police service. Robotham asks the questions he has asked before. Having been appraised of the suspicions of ill-doing on the part of another human being, do we make judgments about a person’s character based on what we observe, do we refuse to believe because it is easier on the conscience, do we disengage from the uncomfortable and make excuses so that inaction is the correct way to proceed?

It has become accepted that Michael Robotham is a master craftsman, a storyteller without peer, a purveyor of ideas and actions through gripping and suspenseful writing. His plots are logically developed and there are no holes in the narrative. Nor are their dead spots. The action, told in the present tense by just a few characters, never confuses. Too many characters only sets readers in a heightened state of anxiety over character recognition. Robotham’s characters are very different from each other, and there are few of them.

Let Angela Marie, suitably adapted, have a final say:

Herein lies one of the strongest reasons why we may have a preference for the genre of psychological crime fiction. We relish the thrill of being jilted out of our comfort zones and dragged to dark places, knowing we are able to rise and draw breath (The Secrets She Keeps).

So much is learned in When She Was Good, so many secrets are revealed, the lie is routed and the secret exposed…yet I pray already for another book in the same series. This novel is a creative work of literary art. It is wonderful!

When She Was Good
(2020)
By Michael Robotham
Hachette
ISBN: 978-0-7336-4484-9
$32.99; 416 pp

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