Andrew Hankinson

An untrue true crime story: Penance, by Eliza Clark, reviewed

A teasing piece of crime fiction weaves together real and invented murders in a satire on the true crime genre and its devotees

Eliza Clark. [Robin Silas Christian]

Remember the teenage girl who was murdered in Crow-on-Sea in 2016? A horrific story. Google it. Or the journalist Alec Z. Carelli, the guy who went to school with Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton and Giles Coren and wrote a book about it? Remember how it was pulled because of the controversy over the way he obtained some of his material? Well, the publisher has decided to release that book after all.

There will be no upset loved ones –except perhaps those who were affected by the true crimes mentioned

None of this is true. Instead, Eliza Clark, the author of Boy Parts and recently named by Granta one of the best of young British novelists, has written an untrue true crime book,  a satire on true crime writers and true crime consumers embedded in an intelligently constructed, rapid lounger-by-the-pool piece of crime fiction.

It starts with a note from the publisher: ‘Artistic merit should not be erased from history simply for causing offence.’ The opening proper is a transcript of an American podcast: ‘I Peed on Your Grave, Episode 341’. Next come interviews, summaries, online comments, extracts from other documents, messages and newspaper articles, almost all of which are on the money. Clark describes one character whose daughter was involved in a murder as having written a Daily Mail article headlined: ‘Why Should I Be Embarrassed About Having More Than One Cleaner?’

‘I was going to take a gap year to see the world, but the world’s coming to see us.’

Throughout the fiction are mucky dollops of real crime, rubbing our noses in our own behaviour. Damien Echols gets a mention, as do Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. One character gives tours of Crow-on-Sea, but recalls how they ‘felt icky’ leading Jack the Ripper tours in London. The ‘Columbiners’ are in there, as are the online girls who feel they could have ‘saved’ Elliot Rodger.

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