In 1966, Truman Capote gave the True Crime genre a boost with publication of In Cold Blood, described as a non-fiction novel that blended truth with fiction. Capote, along with his friend and well known author Harper Lee, interviewed two men, Richard Hickok and Perry Smith, who had murdered four members of a Kansas farm family, along with anyone who had a connection with the crime. Capote, however, took it a step further, adding his own narrative which embellished and, in some cases, distorted the truth, adding scenes that never happened, for example. Eliza Clark’s Penance is set up like a True Crime novel with a fictitious and disreputable narrator.
Penance focuses on a horrific crime. Three teenage girls in the fictional Crow-on-Sea, described as a fading coastal resort in north England, killed one of their classmates, kidnapping her after a party, tying her up, gagging her, hitting her over the head, dumping her in a beach cabin, dousing her with petrol, and setting her on fire. Because the murder happened on June 23, 2016, the evening of the Brexit referendum, the murder never received the attention it deserved. The girls involved – Angelica Stirling-Stewart, Violet Hubbard, and Dolly Hart – received light prison sentences for killing Joan Wilson. After hearing about Joan’s death on an irreverent podcast, appropriately named “I Peed on Your Grave,” struggling writer, Alec Z. Carelli, comes up with the idea of traveling to Crow to investigate the crime.
Eliza Clark (Photo by Robin Christian)
A disclaimer at the beginning of the book warns the reader that Carelli’s book was recalled after discoveries that “therapeutic writing produced by two off the three offenders while incarcerated was illegally acquired by Carelli.” In the belief that “readers have the freedom and the right to read and judge for themselves,” the disclaimer goes on to justify now making Carelli’s work once again accessible.
This is Clark’s second novel, following her well received Boy Parts. With Penance she has created an intriguing work that not only skewers the True Crime model but delves into the teenage psyche, what causes some young people to develop an obsession with grisly crimes, idolize the criminals, and then take the ultimate step – to kill. There’s a reference to Slender Man, a fictional internet character who inspired two 12 year-old girls in Wisconsin to stab and kill one of their classmates. Clark also brilliantly presents and dissects the teen culture where young people are subjected to bullying or, in some cases, become bullies themselves.
Carelli interviews Joan’s mother, as well as her daughter’s three killers (who have been given new identities), revealing that all four girls came from troubled backgrounds that eroded their self-esteem and made them vulnerable to dark forces. While Joan ended up as the victim, she also participated in bullying the other girls. With shifting friendships and allegiances, Joan might have been the killer and one of the other girls, the victim. At some point, however, Violent’s descent into a world of violence (she built a Sim house online where a young woman was tortured in the basement), pulled in Dolly and then Angelica.
On the fringe of the events was Jayde, who had come out as gay and had a relationship with Dolly. Joan’s attention to Jayde angered Dolly and lit the fuse that led to the evening’s violence. Jayde was initially arrested and then let go when police verified her alibi, but the taint of being associated with the young killers never left her.
Clark’s research along, with her talent for describing people, places, and events, makes Penance so believable that I found myself searching online for some of the locations, murders, and killers in the book. Interspersing the narrative with excerpts from that podcast and text messages between the participants, also added realism and a “fly on the wall” feeling.
Whether Clark’s insight about how teens turn to crime came about because of research or personal experience, Penance could prove enlightening for parents, teachers, social workers, and many others. Young people do kill, but much can be done to prevent them from going down that road.
Top photo: Bigstock