Between the Lines: Loving couples and other secrets

Fiona Barton, author of “The Widow,” was until last year a reporter for British newspapers.
Fiona Barton, author of “The Widow,” was until last year a reporter for British newspapers. Courtesy of NAL

Every once in awhile, a suspense thriller comes along that grips readers and won’t let go. The buzz has been ongoing over “Luckiest Girl Alive” by Jessica Knoll, “The Silent Wife” by S.A. Harrison, “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, “The Girl On the Train” by Paula Hawkins and “The Winter Girl” by Matt Marinovich.

Joining that mini-library is “The Widow” by Fiona Barton, a thoroughly chilling novel with one of the most unreliable narrators in recent memory (NAL, $26, 336 pages). Set in England, the story opens with journalist Kate Waters coming to the home of recently widowed Jean Taylor to manipulate her into an exclusive interview. Jean’s husband, Glen, was killed when he stumbled and fell under a bus. It was an accident, right?

Years earlier, Glen was accused of committing a heinous crime, but never was formally charged and arrested. Still, the Taylors’ lives changed for the worse because of the negative coverage by the notoriously sensational British media. Their friends and neighbors were outraged. The loyal Jean stood by her man’s innocence – until she discovered a few things for herself.

Glen may be dead, but police detective Bob Sparkes is still on the case. Does he have a new suspect? Amid the turmoil, it looks like Jean is about to open up to Kate and tell the behind-the-scenes story at long last. Maybe.

Barton is an award-winning former journalist who worked at the British newspapers the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday. She and her husband, Gary Barton, now live in the Dordogne area of southwestern France. I caught up with her by phone in Arizona during her U.S. book tour.

Q: Publishing “The Widow” turned everything around for you.

A: I am 58, with grandchildren, so you can imagine how bizarre it is to change your life at this age. It’s slightly overwhelming, but a wonderful thing. Until last year I was training journalists in Asia and Africa for a Swedish university, but now I’m traveling with the book and writing another one.

Q: How did your career lead to the novel?

A: As a reporter, I covered serious crimes and trials, and every day met people with stories to tell. I’ve done some incredibly intense interviews with ordinary people who have experienced extraordinary things. And that never leaves you – what they said, the expressions on their faces.

Q: The main narrator in “Widow” is Jean Taylor, who is largely on the sidelines of the action.

A: I was particularly fascinated with the people on the edge of stories, the ones who are affected by the stories (involving) the people I was interviewing. The relatives watching on in the courtroom, for example, but who don’t have a voice. The wife standing next to her man on the courthouse steps. I often wondered, “What do they know about what happened, and what do they allow themselves to know?”

Q: What Jean learns is enough to make anyone come unhinged, but she does well at denial.

A: Absolutely. The character of Jean cooked in my head for quite a long time, and I could hear her phrase, “No more of his (Glen’s) nonsense.” It’s a ridiculous thing to say, when you think of what his “nonsense” was. But how do you cope with something so huge? You make it less huge to yourself, is how. You decide to believe a certain set of circumstances. To question everything your life is based on and risk losing everything is too overwhelming.

Q: At the heart of the story is the question, “How well do husbands and wives know each other?”

A: That’s terrifying, isn’t it? I’ve been married 34 years, and all marriages have their secrets. I don’t think you can know somebody completely.

Q: What doesn’t your husband know about you?

A: Oh, I’m not telling.

Q: The book’s police procedure rings true.

A: I met and worked alongside police detectives regularly as a reporter, and drew on those experiences and the detectives I met. Also, I talked with a very senior police officer and asked him to make sure I hadn’t made a complete hash of it. He read all the police stuff and told me the technical parts were right.

Q: Your second book will bring back reporter Kate Waters.

A: Yes, she is central to the story, which is about a reporter’s investigation. It starts when she sees a news brief in the evening paper about the skeleton of a baby being dug up at a building site. Her editor is using her for rewrites, and she’s desperate to get out of the office, so she says, “I’m going to have a look at this.” The story is about the journey she is led on from there.

Q: Anything else?

A: Never say “never.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe