TRUE MURDER tells the story of Ajuba, an 11-year-old girl from Ghana whose parents' marriage is in great difficulty. She's therefore been dumped, uncomprehending, in an English boarding school. She befriends three other girls with whom she shares a dorm, and together they read 'true-murder' stories in American comics, acting out some of the cases in their games. Two detectives in the comic, Malone and Leboeuf, accompany Ajuba in her imagination, becoming substitute parents who guide her and act as her role models.
One of the girls in the dorm, Polly Venus, befriends Ajuba and invites her home at weekends and vacations to share life with her family. The Venus parents, Peter and Isobel, have an extremely brittle and volatile relationship, with Polly being very much a player in the warped dynamics that underlie the adults' superficially charming and sophisticated lifestyle. Ajuba is mainly an observer of these scenes, but they bring to her consciousness events that have happened to her mother in the past, and increase her confusion about her (rather unpleasant) father – a confusion only increased by her awareness of the supernatural, impressed upon her by her unstable mother.
At the Venus house, the girls again play their detective games, but this time they make a gruesome discovery in an old trunk in the attic. Much of the rest of the novel is set against the girls' determination to solve this crime, interrogating anyone they think might have been involved and generally making nuisances of themselves or even putting themselves in danger. What with this and the intolerable strains in the Venus family relationships, which become violent and unpredictable, it seems inevitable that disaster will strike – which it does.
There are many other elements to this novel that combine to make it a somewhat fractured whole. Although I enjoyed it very much and recommend it, I could have done with fewer fleeting characters who never really come into focus, and more development of some of the central ones. The school scenes would have been more convincing had some of them taken place in the context of other pupils – the four dorm-mates seem to exist in isolation of influences from other girls, which is necessary for the plot but not realistic. My other gripe is that there are too many heavy hints that something awful is going to happen, often at the end of chapters. Not only does this constantly snap the reader out of the world the author is creating, but slows the pace and actually reduces the tension rather than builds it up.
Don't let me put you off, though – this is a first novel which is enjoyable and holds a great deal of promise. If you enjoy Ruth Rendell or Morag Joss you will find much to like in TRUE MURDER.