First Born

Written by Will Dean

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

First Born
Hodder and Stoughton
RRP: £16.99
Released: April 14 2022

So how is Will Dean going to handle identical twins: those elephant traps for the unwary?

He does pretty well actually, taking into account one twin insisting from the start that, although close, very close, this pair is not identical; there has been a twist, a tweak. Nurture helped, nature played her part. It became a question of responsibility. At twenty-two Katie, the carefree twin, applied for, and was granted a scholarship to a New York university while her cautious and dutiful sister stayed home in London keeping one eye on Mum and Dad and the other on the world beyond her laptop. This is Molly, obsessed with danger: the ultimate Health and Safety nerd. She sleeps on baby-safe pillows with a knife on the bedside table and triple locks on the door. For Molly menace is ubiquitous:  in the risks of electrocution, traffic, food poisoning - and she has a stratagem for every threat.

Mum and Dad are conventional and caring to a fault, accepting this daughter’s wildest eccentricities, shielding her like a tender plant, keeping in close touch when they take the holiday of a lifetime to visit her adventurous sister in New York. The scene is set, and too well; the reader is bored to capacity with behaviour as much as character, but engaged. Proof of that comes with Katie’s sudden death and one is less shocked at the news than intrigued by Molly’s subsequent dilemma. It is essential that she go to the States to support the parents – but planes are death traps with all the possibilities of hi-jack, engine failure, bird strike, drunks, crazy passengers…. Her sense of duty prevails and she flies armed with a monkey fist and coins in a sock.

In New York it transpires that Katie has been murdered: suffocated in her bed. Mum is distraught, Dad phlegmatic, Molly copes. Statistics tell her that a surviving identical twin is likely to die within two years of the other’s death so she becomes fatalistic and faces developments with equanimity. Police interviews are conducted by rote but with such confusing naivety on all sides that there has to be some hidden agenda. The usual suspects are obvious: Katie’s steady boyfriend, her girlfriend, the creepy neighbour and, suddenly, out of the blue: a self-styled private eye, unrecognised and unknown to the police but who cleaves to Molly like a leech.

Insidiously, through hints and innuendoes too subtle to be registered as clues there is an awareness of something looming, not   necessarily in the background but everywhere, a faint blur. It is there halfway through the book when the identity of the killer is suddenly and shockingly revealed, to be succeeded by why? And even that pales before the ultimate question: how?

This work is a clever and sophisticated construction of onion skins. Start to peel one off and you risk a spoiler. Suffice it to say that there is a second murder and a great deal of humiliation, that smart phones and the internet figure largely, and that basically the theme is of evil confronted by a foe of similar calibre.  In First Born Dean has gone up a notch, producing a novel less fantastic than Bad Apples, but with a bizarre and topical plot that is marginally credible and a jolly good read.


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