Will Dean’s debut The Last Thing to Burn was a tense survival thriller with some nasty twists built on the very real issue of people trafficking. So when his follow up First Born starts with a murder, readers can be sure that the story is a little more complicated than that. And after a slow build first half, the twists and the nastiness start coming thick and fast and readers just need to hang on as the layers start to peel away.
Molly Raven lives on her own in London. She is the timid half of a pair of identical twins – her sister Katie, or KT as Molly calls her, having jetted off to New York over a year earlier is the risk taking party animal of the pair. Molly gets a call from her parents who had been in New York visiting Katie telling her that her sister has been murdered and that she needs to come out to support them. Despite her fear of pretty much everything, including flying, Molly packs a bag and jets off to New York where she starts investigating Katie’s death on her own not because she thinks that the police are incompetent but because… well, because that’s what amateur investigators in books do, I guess. In doing so she runs across another, fairly shady private investigator who is looking into the Katie’s death for the strange organisation that was funding her studies. Then the narrative starts to twist and the less said the better.
The unreliable narrator has become a staple of modern thrillers but it always leaves readers with the same question. Who is the protagonist telling this story to? This conundrum, which was solved so cleverly in Gone Girl, has not always been so successful. And this is one of those times. Many of the twists do make some sense of some plot points that otherwise are baffling, but they only work because the narrator has failed to mention something earlier that they clearly already knew. So the question again needs to be asked – who were they holding this information back from and why are they telling the reader the story in this way except to maximise the thrills.
First Born is certainly is not the first to use the idea of identical twins as a narrative device. But the device makes for an effective and page turning thriller for those who like to be surprised and shocked. But in order to be effective it almost demands to be (and can be) read quickly. Otherwise readers might have time to think about the plot holes and narrative sleights of hand that make the whole enterprise work at all.