On one level this novel is an entertaining, light-hearted and fast-moving romp, relating how Krissie Donald, protagonist of DEAD LOVELY, becomes a probation officer, encounters a client, Jeremy, who is accused of killing his mother-in-law, feels sorry for him and tries to prove him innocent. This process not only involves finding evidence and arguments to help the defence lawyer (not exactly part of her job description) but also stimulates Krissie to try to find out who did the dirty deed if not Jeremy. There's plenty of fizz and pace to this plot, as the author wittily skewers all kinds of modern targets among the absentee-management and politically correct, training-course culture of today, where nobody understands responsibility but they know how to check boxes recording performance targets.
My enjoyment of this well-written novel, however, was marred by two aspects that made me uncomfortable. One is Krissie's domestic life. The reader is clearly meant to identify and sympathise with Krissie, who is presented as a naïve, warm-hearted, ditzy woman, who can't be blamed for all the things that go wrong in her life. I just could not go along with that, particularly where her young son Robbie is concerned. For example, as the book opens, Krissie and her patient boyfriend Chas have spent a couple of years recovering from the events of DEAD LOVELY living with and being looked after by Krissie's parents. They all decide it would be good for the young family to be independent, so Chas, Krissie and Robbie move back into Krissie's flat and she starts a new job as the community protection (aka probation) officer. A lot is made of how much Krissie hates leaving Robbie on her first day at work (Chas is looking after him while she's there). Similarly, she does not particularly like her workmates. However, she readily accepts an invitation to go to the pub with them in the evening, leaving Chas to cope with all the parenting and returning home very late without a care. This is definitely not endearing behaviour, and I found myself constantly wrong-footed in finding Krissie's actions increasingly less likeable as the book wore on (yes, she gets much worse than this), yet the author relentlessly presents her as a romantic, endearingly cute heroine who deserves our sympathy at the expense of her little son and the rest of her family.
The other main aspect I found difficult about the book was the depiction of the families of Jeremy (the accused murderer) and Amanda (his manicurist wife). Are these portrayals intended to be satires of modern life and relationships? The relationship between Amanda and her birth mother immediately after their reunion is the most extreme example of the author's ability to push way beyond anything remotely funny into something utterly ghastly, but not acknowledged as such with even so much as a blink or change of pace.
Although I enjoyed this book and found many parts of it funny, its ambiguities defeated me in the sense that I could not work out how much is intentional on the part of the author. As a mystery novel, there are some gaping inconsistencies in the plot (when the truth of the murder is eventually revealed) that really should have been addressed in a final revision.
Even with these flaws, and despite my queasy distaste for several of the relationships and set-pieces, I admire the author for creating situations that are so over-the-top awful yet told in a teen-novel, "Princess Diaries" style that allows her to go even further than is bearable without making the reader put down the book in disgust. I still don't know if I like or loathe Krissie for her blithe refusal to take responsibility for anything in her personal life or for her own feelings – a couple of hints indicate that the childhood trauma described in DEAD LOVELY is at the root of it, so this may be addressed in future novels – or it may be just how Krissie is. If nothing else, Helen Fitzgerald is certainly different, and does not shrink from depicting a warts-and-all world and characters, all with good humour and a light, readable touch.