Sharon Bolton may not do wonders for Falkland Islands tourism. “I adore the feeling that when night falls, when the airplanes and the ships stop running, there is no escape,” she says. Perhaps not the best way to draw people to the remote British archipelago, but the perfect setting for a crime novel like Bolton’s latest stand-alone, Little Black Lies. Though Lies owes some of its darkness to unhealed wounds from the Falklands War, which took place over a decade before the novel opens in 1994, Bolton wanted to make her island story is different because though “there must be 1,000 stories amongst the windswept wilderness that is Falkland…only one of them—that of the British/Argentine conflict—has been properly told.” And while Lies is undoubtedly fiction, Bolton likes to think “that the vulnerabilities it explores, the dependencies, and the darkness within the human soul, will have a special resonance to this tiny community in the South Atlantic.”
Lies is the story of loss magnified by isolation and how the pain of that loss—of losing children, of watching relationships crumble, of struggling to come to terms with past trauma—can become all-consuming. Catrin Quinn, an ecologist working for Falkland Conservation, is acutely aware of each day that passes in the wake of her young sons Kit and Ned’s accidental deaths, even three years after they died. “I believe just about anyone can kill in the right circumstances, given enough motivation,” Catrin muses as the novel opens. “The question is, am I there yet? I think I must be. Because lately, it seems, I’ve been thinking of little else.”
The object of Catrin’s rage is her former childhood best friend, Rachel Grimwood, the woman whose carelessness resulted in the car with Kit and Ned trapped inside going over a cliff. In the wake of the accident, Catrin withdrew from her fellow islanders by choice, while Rachel, beset with guilt, was ostracized by the community. Catrin’s sons aren’t the only children to suffer unpleasant fates on the Falkland Islands: two other young boys disappeared from the isolated community and when the novel opens, a third one goes missing. It soon becomes clear that the boys, at least the earlier victims, won’t be seen alive again. The island-wide search for three-year-old Archie West does little to either soothe Catrin’s deep-seated hatred of Rachel or her equally ingrained maternal anguish; looking for another woman’s child, regardless of the outcome, won’t make the pain any less acute.
Though Catrin and Rachel are both native islanders, the final character in Bolton’s triumvirate, Scottish former soldier—and Catrin’s ex-lover—Callum Murray, settled there after the war. Bolton is cognizant of the inevitable split between natives and outsiders, the inherent danger that is borne on the back of a stranger. “When I was writing Little Black Lies, it was very important to me that the islanders simply cannot believe that the killer could be one of them,” she says. “They are ready to blame the tourists, the military personnel, even the former soldier who’s lived amongst them for a decade because they cannot bring themselves to consider that there could be a monster among them.” Of course, the greatest danger for Catrin came from within: her children were not killed by an anonymous lurking presence but by the person with whom she was closest.
The search for Archie, who’s visiting the Falklands with his family, drives an even larger wedge between the native Falklanders, who doggedly refuse to believe that anything other than bad luck is behind the disappearance of the three boys, and the tourists, who want to sound the alarm to the mainland that a child killer is on the loose. Bolton—who splits the novel into three sections, with one for each of the main characters—is just as aware of the “fear of being the outsider, the one who doesn’t belong. Being accepted is a fundamental human need, and when we are denied this, the consequences can be dire.”
Callum, who suffers from PTSD as a result of his combat experiences during the Falklands War, is not only a living, breathing reminder of the short-lived but violent 1982 conflict but also Catrin’s tether to the outside world. He is her alternative to the hate-fueled vision she’s constructed in her head that’s ticking down the days until she’s ready to kill Rachel. As Catrin discovers over the course of the novel, he’s deeply scarred by the accident that killed her sons, a fact that she never knew. The two were secretly seeing each other—Catrin was still married—prior to the accident and in its wake, Catrin purposefully distanced herself from Callum but the two share a seemingly unbreakable bond.
In many ways, Callum is the only one who understands the depths of her pain—he’s equally damaged—and as such is the only person who has any chance of convincing Catrin to rescue herself (she’s not the kind of woman who would stand to be rescued by anyone else). As they search for Archie together—and thankfully Bolton never forcefully equates that child’s safe return with any sort of miraculous mental recovery on Catrin’s part—and later when the pair, along with Rachel, is possibly implicated in another crime, it’s clear that, as Bolton puts it, “Little Black Lies is the story of three outsiders, each of them trying to find their way back home.”
Perhaps outsiders are made for islands. For Bolton—who says she’s had a “particular passion for island settings” since she wrote her first book, Sacrifice, set on the Shetland Islands—one of the biggest appeals of a remote place like the Falklands is the “sense of being separate from the outside world, in a place where normal rules of behavior can be suspended.” Children can disappear from anywhere, as any reader of crime fiction (or the newspaper) can tell you, but the stakes are different on a remote island whose closest neighbor is, as Bolton puts it, “a potentially aggressive and predatory foreign power—how can [you] ever, really, feel safe?”
Jordan Foster is an editor for the crime fiction website The Life Sentence. She lives in Portland, Oregon.