Fresh Blood

Name: Lisa Ballantyne

Title of Book: The Guilty One

'This is an assured debut novel that has ‘bestseller’ slapped all over it.'

Daniel Hunter has spent many years as a solicitor defending young adults and what many would consider, ‘lost causes’. Such a lost cause is eleven year-old Sebastian who is charged with battering and killing a child three years younger. Seeing a lot of his juvenile self in Sebastian, Daniel takes on the role as his legal guide. But it is a trial that will have Daniel looking deep within himself and how things may well have been so different.

As Daniel makes preparations for the trial he hears that his adoptive mother, Minnie has died. They had not communicated for many years due to Minnie’s subterfuge and Daniel’s anger and reluctance to forgive her indiscretion. Now Minnie is dead there is no chance of reconciliation. As Sebastian’s trial gets underway, Daniel discovers more about the woman who took him in when nobody else wanted him and loved him even when he hated her. Slowly building up a portrait of Minnie’s life before they met, Daniel slowly realises that Minnie’s reasons for lying to Daniel may have been in his own best interests. Possibly, if Minnie had not acted, then Daniel may well have found himself in a court of law as a criminal rather than defending them.

‘The Guilty One’ is a very strong debut combining the very potent issues of morality as well as of the heart. Ballantyne delivers a novel that is thought-provoking as well as heartbreaking. The author works well on the theme of guilt and by running Daniel’s past life parallel with his current case, (a child killing another child and the media coverage that follows) runs alongside Danny’s own volatile childhood, his emotional outbursts and signs of infrequent violence. It is interesting that children will use the act of violence to test an adult, to see if they will run away like everyone else, or stay and see beyond the penknife levelled at their face.

Ballantyne has told a tale very well in this novel. I wouldn’t say it is perfect or immaculate but what she gives is a promising intro to her work. For me, Minnie and the juvenile Danny were entrancing. Danny’s past with Minnie was vivid, colourful and beguiling as the child turn in to a man. But the destructive child in Danny is never far beneath the skin and soon the whole is torn down and thrown aside as a complete fabrication. In some parts of the book it was difficult to actually like Daniel as an adult. It is due again to his destructive nature that he was able to continue his grievance with Minnie for so long and only regret his actions when it was far too late. But there Ballantyne is sublime as she doesn’t make you judge Daniel, despite shots of annoyance at his pig-headedness.

In Ballantyne’s novel there is more than one guilty party hiding a secret of some description. I felt that the author had a talent for characterisation. I could have read a whole book about Minnie whilst Sebastian’s father, Kenneth ‘King’ Croll who despite only playing a small part and is mainly absent, you could still feel his intimidating presence strongly throughout his son’s trial.

As I read ‘The Guilty One’ I could sense that this is one of those novels that people rightly get excited about. It will entrance them, it will grip them like a vice and it will divide the reading public. It held me and wouldn’t release me until the final page. If this is what Ballantyne can offer with her debut novel, then we can only marvel at what she will produce in the future. This is an assured debut novel that has ‘bestseller’ slapped all over it.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What originally made you want to write a novel surrounding a crime?
I wrote this book because the characters of Daniel and Minnie began to ‘inhabit me’, right down to the smell of them. It was after musing on their relationship that I realised this story was being told by Daniel as an adult; I could see him in a suit in London. Later on, I discovered he was a solicitor and it was only then I had the idea of giving him a client who was a young child on trial for murder - in order to throw Daniel’s own troubled childhood into relief.
2) The two main protagonists from 'The Guilty One' I felt were Daniel and Minnie. Does the issue of fostering / adoption interest you particularly or did the issue simply fit the scenario between the two?
The characters of Daniel and Minnie came to me almost fully formed. I could tell that they had a strong emotional bond, but that initially they were strangers. I am not particularly interested in fostering, but I am more widely interested in the concept of ‘the stranger’ and the profound affect they can have.
3) In ‘The Guilty One’ you run Daniel’s past parallel with his present case. Was this an easy or difficult method of telling Daniel’s story?
It was the only way that the novel would be written. The challenge of writing a novel with a dual narrative is to make each as relevant and engrossing as the other and this was something that I tried hard to achieve.
4) Most of your book deals with the trial of a child accused of killing another child. How did it feel dealing with such an explosive issue and how did you try to make sure the subject matter didn’t become exploitative or simply sensationalistic?
I think that because the story was told from Daniel’s point of view – both as an adult and as a damaged child - I was given a way to explore the issue in a way that was more empathetic. I would hate to have written about such a sensitive issue in an exploitative way.
5) In the book you appear to have a great deal of love and empathy for Minnie. Did Minnie stand out for you when you started ‘The Guilty One’?
Very much so! I admire Minnie’s bravery; she was willing to be different and had the courage to love and care for others despite having encountered a great deal of tragedy in her own life.
6) Did you have to do much research when writing the court scenes at Sebastian’s trial?
The book entailed an enormous amount of research - from the English locations (none of which I am familiar with) to fostering, farming and the law. The legal aspects and court scenes were the most challenging. Also, as I am Scottish, I am more familiar with Scots Law, which differs from the English legal system. I visited the Old Bailey a few times to watch the interactions between the barristers and judges and was lucky enough to see one of my idols in action: Dame Helena Kennedy QC.
7) Do you feel that Daniel was justified being so resentful to Minnie for so long?
I think that when we love people we all make choices that can be difficult to justify afterwards. I certainly understand Daniel for feeling so hurt but part of the book’s tragedy is that he sustains this anger for so long and when he does reflect on it - it is too late.
8) Reading the book I felt you portrayed Danny as a child brilliantly. Do you have dealings with children and why do you think you were able to get inside a child’s mind so well?
No, I have very little contact with children at all. But each of us have been a child at one time in our lives, and also, in a lot of ways, children are similar to the adults they will become.
9) There is a lot of Daniel in Sebastian when he was a child, n fact for most of the book you feel Daniel is as much on trial as Sebastian. Did you feel Daniel had a lot to be guilty about?
I think readers will all have different opinions about this. I understand Daniel’s anger and pain but I think at the end of the story he himself would have questioned why he did not reflect sooner on one of the most important relationships of his life.