Author of the Month

Name: Isabelle Grey

First Novel:

Most Recent Book: The Special Girls

'For me, ‘The Special Girls’ is THE standout crime novel so far of 2017.'

A young psychiatrist is found dead in woodland outside a summer camp for young eating disorder patients run by the charismatic Professor Ned Chesham who has just been honoured for a knighthood. Tim Merrick’s face has been savagely beaten, his mouth crushed to a pulp. DI Grace Fisher investigates, but is soon side-lined to review an investigation into Chesham twenty years earlier.

One of Chesham’s patients made allegations of sexual abuse, but there was no conclusive proof. Grace discovers another patient of Chesham’s who also claims to have been abused by the great man, but then the review is shut down unexpectedly. It appears that people in powerful positions do not want to muddy the waters, especially after the recent Saville scandal. But Grace can’t allow this man who is so cool and confident, to continue using these vulnerable girls, especially his ‘special girls’.

We have come to see all too clearly in recent years some professionals in positions of trust, given free rein by parents over their children in the hope of nursing them back to health, who have abused that trust as well as their young charges. Child abuse is a difficult subject to write about, especially in crime fiction when the subject matter is abhorrent to most people and yet the writer has to tread the fine line of dealing with a sensitive issue as well as entertain their reader. Here, Isabelle Grey deals with the issue of children who are vulnerable through the debilitating condition that is anorexia.

Grey masterfully weaves this heinous crime in with Grace Fisher’s murder investigation with sensitivity, although never shying away from uncomfortable situations. While I read ‘The Special Girls’, I never felt that Grey was getting on a soap box, but delivering the facts through the mind and heart of her creation, DI Grace Fisher. Grace has heart, she is the beating pulse of protecting those who have become victims to predators. She is a defender of the weak and an avenging angel to those who feel they are above the law and can break it if they wish. Grace Fisher comes to us as a whole, but we also see her own insecurities, and we observe Grace learn more about herself and what she is capable of, and what lengths she will go to when frustrated by the police hierarchy. To make a difference, Grace requests the assistance of Ivo Sweatman of ‘The Courier’. Grey shows great skill detailing the fragile relationship between the police and the press.

As I read this I could see that Grey was looking at how wide the ripples drifted, how cases such as this touched not only the victims, but the family who had unbeknownst delivered their child to a monster. Although we know of the rumours about Chesham, Grey continued to make me wonder if Chesham was a paedophile or not. However, this is not the only twist, as Grey delivers several shockers before the final page is reached. There is a turn of events that not even I had foreseen. Again, it spins the case on its head and into a different direction.

There were moments while I read this book that I caught glimpses of Ruth Rendell’s Wexford novels from the 80’s and 90’s. I do not say this lightly as Rendell is my icon and in my book no-one comes close, but here and there, Grey made me feel as though this is the sort of book Rendell could have produced. For me, this is the highest praise I can deliver.

If you haven’t read the previous novels, then you need not fear as Grey plants the relevant facts of Grace’s past for any new reader. I am willing to bet that when you finish this book, you will be going back and tracking down the previous two Fisher books. For me, ‘The Special Girls’ is the standout crime novel so far of 2017.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) ‘The Special Girls’ involves an investigation of sexual abuse by a prominent figure in the medical world. You mention Savile which started all of the media frenzy, and it has echoes of the conviction of Dr Myles Bradbury. Were these investigations partly the reason why you decided to write this book?
It obviously started with Savile, but there have been so many cases involving men associated with prestigious institutions such as flagship NHS hospitals, the BBC, renowned music schools, the church and championship sport. I was particularly stuck by the case of an American football coach, Jerry Sandusky, and the way in which the Penn State authorities talked down an eye-witness report of his abuse until it became ‘just good old Jerry horsing around again’. I suspect that happens for a variety of reasons, but it also happens far too often.
2) DI Grace Fisher finds herself in the middle of deep politics within the Met. Is this something you got to hear about during your time as a journalist?
I was a feature writer rather than a news reporter, so internal Met politics are something I’ve come across more since writing crime drama for television and crime fiction. Every police force has its ‘rotten apples’, but it does seem as if the Met’s knee-jerk reaction to corruption and wrong-doing is to sweep it under the carpet. It’s supposed to be criminals who have something to hide, so I find that behaviour fascinating!
3) Having been a journalist, I imagine you were on the one side of the fence with the police on the other with a kind of pseudo love/hate relationship. You show this very well between journalist, Ivo Sweatman and Grace. How do you feel about the working relationship between Ivo and Grace?
The police are an institution dedicated to social control, so it’s no surprise that they also do their best to control their relationship with the media, which the press - natural anarchists - tend to challenge. Both Grace and Ivo seek the truth, but with the big - and unfair - difference that Grace has to stick to the rules. Although she has to be sure that her investigation will stand up at trial, some of the restrictions are just down to internal politics and power games. Sometimes she can’t help envying Ivo’s freedom, and I like playing with the idea that she’s constantly on the verge of throwing caution to the wind, in which case Ivo, who is half in love with her, would cheer her on! Except something in him maybe admires her restraint...
4) You hint at the phone hacking scandal. Again, I allude to the love/hate between the press and the police. Do you feel the press overstepped the mark?
As a journalist I wrote regularly for three Murdoch titles, the Times, Sunday Times and Today, both before and after he acquired them, and witnessed how quickly values and attitudes changed under his ownership. There’s no question that several newspapers more than overstepped the mark. The irony is that the old close and generally mutually beneficial working relationship between crime correspondents (like Ivo) and investigating officers got portrayed as dodgy when in fact the real corruption was much higher up the food chain at Scotland Yard. The Met has yet to account for why very senior officers, at least one of whom went on to become a highly paid Murdoch columnist, either withheld, or stalled for years on handing over, information of illegal activity by journalists.
5) When working in the world of journalism, did you deal with any murder investigations? If so, did it give insight in to how an MIT works?
Not through my work as a journalist, but former murder detectives who were attached as advisors to TV shows I’ve written for have been incredibly helpful. Plus my brother, now retired, was a Home Office forensic pathologist, so I’ve gleaned a good overview of how a murder investigation operates. I don’t think Scotland Yard is always squeaky clean, but I do think the detectives who investigate murder in this country do amazing work.
6) Any sexual abuse needs to be handled delicately within a book. What were your main concerns when writing ‘The Special Girls’?
However much one strives to communicate the truth, crime fiction is always going to tread a fine line when appropriating a victim’s experience for what is essentially entertainment, and even more so when the victims are children. Also it’s easy to make the abuser the object of fascination – What kind of man? How did he get away with it? – as the recent Channel 4 drama did with Robbie Coltrane playing a Savile-type character. I think that’s wrong, and I tried hard to make ‘The Special Girls’ about the people who failed to protect the victims, the reasons they failed and also the effects on them of having failed. It’s now clear how Savile groomed everyone around him; I’d be interested to know how they feel now. Some of them, especially the parents, are victims, too.
7) For writers who are just starting out on their ‘novel journey’, what one piece of advice would you give?
Only you can write the novel you’re writing, so don’t be afraid to make it yours.
8) Are you a fan of crime fiction in general? What would you say are the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you and would take with you to a desert island?
I’ve always read crime fiction. My Dad loved crime and SF, so I read whatever he brought home from the library – all those green Penguin and black and yellow Gollancz covers! I especially love writers who manipulate a reader’s slippery relationship with the text, so there’s plenty to enjoy now among my contemporaries. For a desert island, however, I’d want the classics.

Daphne du Maurier: ‘Rebecca’

Arthur Conan Doyle: ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’

Raymond Chandler: ‘The Big Sleep’