Phoenix, £16.99, pp272
From Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter to Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman, serial killers stalk the pages of fiction, their actions and motivations drawing readers back again and again. But how many of us can remember the names of their victims; how many of us have imagined what their lives might have been, if they hadn’t crossed paths with their killers? Just as the true crime genre is starting to upend the narrative of the killer – in Hallie Rubenhold’s award-winning The Five, the women murdered by Jack the Ripper are given their own space on the page – so Danya Kukafka’s Notes on an Execution looks at the women left behind as murderer Ansel Packer awaits his fate on death row.
The clock is ticking towards Ansel’s death as he plots his escape, and gloats over the “Theory” he will leave behind for the world to read. His crimes may be horrific, but Kukafka isn’t out to explore the origin story of the murderer. Instead, she tells us about his mother, Lavender, who was 17 when Ansel was born and subject to a world that slowly closed around her in the Adirondack mountains. “Until the time came, Lavender did not understand what it meant to walk away from a thing she’d grown from her own insides.” Lavender’s story is bruising, and brave – but so is Hazel’s. She’s the twin of Jenny, the girl who married Ansel; Hazel watches as her sister is consumed by her relationship with Ansel, helpless as it destroys her. “Why did he do it?” ask the reporters, but Hazel doesn’t care: it doesn’t matter how Ansel felt. “There are millions of men out there who want to hurt women – people seem to think that Ansel Packer is extraordinary, because he did.”
And Kukafka tells of Saffron Singh, the detective who has been on Ansel’s trail for years – who knew him as a boy, saw what he was capable of then. As the world moves on from the three girls Ansel murdered, leaving the mystery unsolved, Saffy persists. She can’t stop thinking about who the murdered girls – Izzy, Angela, Lila – might have been. “The possibilities stalked and haunted – the infinite number of lives they had not lived… There were so many things a girl could be,” she thinks. And later, at a vigil for them: “Saffy feels slimy, the truth prickling. There would be no story, for these girls alone. There would be no vigil, no attention at all. They are relevant because of Ansel and the fascination the world has for men like him.”
Notes on an Execution is Kukafka’s second novel, after Girl in Snow, which explored the death of a high-school girl in Colorado. It is deeper, wiser, more painful than her debut: devastating in its impact, and impossible to look away from. I can’t remember the last time I finished a thriller in tears, not even sure by that point who my heart was hurting for.
Simon & Schuster, £14.99, pp480
Sarah Vaughan’s fifth novel is uncannily timely. Emma Webster, a Labour backbencher and single mother, is campaigning on the topic of revenge porn when her teenage daughter Flora runs into trouble of her own. As dark and gripping as you’d expect from the author of Anatomy of a Scandal.
Tove Alsterdal, translated by Alice Menzies
Faber, £14.99, pp368
The acclaimed Swedish author’s new novel opens 20 years after Olof Hagström left the remote community in the far north of Sweden where he grew up. He was arrested at the age of 14 for the rape and murder of Lina Stavred, and when he returns, he finds himself in the spotlight again. Alsterdal explores themes of culpability and memory as she lays out, sensitively and painfully, how a child suspect is failed by his family and the police.