Behind Closed Doors from British author Elizabeth Haynes takes a look at the fallout of a crime that occurred ten years earlier. Fifteen year old Scarlett Rainsford was on holiday in Greece with her thirteen year old sister, Juliette and her parents when she disappeared. DCI Louisa (Lou) Smith, ten years before back in 2003, early in her career, was one part of the team investigating the girl’s disappearance, and at the time there was a theory–never proved–that Scarlett’s parents were somehow involved in her disappearance. The strange family dynamic and the father’s bizarre behaviour led the police to think that perhaps the parents had killed Scarlett, so initially the search was for a body. Lou had “always expected to hear” about Scarlett again one day, but it’s an unsolved case that rankled even after all these years. Here’s Lou discussing the case:
“Didn’t feel right. I know that’s easy to say with hindsight. The family was odd–Scarlett’s sister was monosyllabic, hostile at first; the father was polite, helpful as far as it went. When the mother came back she was in a bad state emotionally.” “What happened with the Greeks?” “It was pretty chaotic. One minute they wanted our help, the next they didn’t. They told us some bits and left out other important things. They thought straight away that she had been killed and disposed of. Somehow the investigators who went out there got the impression that had evidence that she’d been killed, some forensics–but there was nothing like that. For a couple of days we were looking for a body when we should have been checking the ports.” “To be honest, we all thought it was the Dad.”
Now ten years later, the Rainsford family (and their sole daughter) are on holiday once again–Spain this time–when they are given the news that Scarlett has been found working in a brothel in their hometown of Briarstone. Lou discovers that Scarlett, who obviously in hindsight wasn’t murdered, wasn’t a runaway either. As a 15-year-old troubled teen, she was very vulnerable and fell for a local Greek boy, but when a secret meeting failed to take place, Scarlett was smuggled out of the country by human traffickers. Elizabeth Haynes’s crime novel moves through three narrative voices moving backwards and forwards in time with Scarlett’s terrible story unfolding and alternating with the current investigation. The murder case from Under a Silent Moon (the first in the Briarstone series) is mentioned frequently–along with various characters from the first novel, so there’s some back story here that readers should be aware of. Scarlett’s horrific story is gripping, and so gripping that this works against the novel when chapters flip from Scarlett to the chapters narrated by Lou and Sam. Maintaining momentum through multiple narrative voices is a challenge which is not met here. There was too much fluff with Lou’s love life and the inserted reports were distracting. Nothing could match Scarlett’s story for readability. In the creation of Scarlett, the author shows impressive depth for not only does she tackle a very real social problem, but she faces prostitution head-on in all of its ugliness–even addressing the red-light district of Amsterdam where prostitution is legal.
Did they genuinely think she was here through choice? That she would choose to sit in a window in her underwear, on display, waiting for the next ugly, filthy, sexually inadequate bastard to come and use her body? Why did none of them ever stop to think about it, about the hideousness of it all, of what they were doing? How could this ever ever be right?
But here’s what she has been told to tell customers:
“I came here because I always wanted to do this,” she recited, trying to keep her voice light, knowing it sounded flat. “I always wanted to make people happy. You see, I have an insanely high sex drive. I need to fuck guys all the time or else I feel sad. So this is the perfect job for me.”
It’s with the character of Scarlett that Elizabeth Haynes takes some bold chances and succeeds in examining the deeper psychological aspects behind the case. Here’s a now 25 year old woman who was kidnapped and sold into a life of prostitution at age 15. At one point, Scarlett is being interviewed by the police and they seem amazed that she doesn’t know more about the men who moved her around Europe or the apartments she was kept in. By alternating the investigation with Scarlett’s story, we see how the police fail to grasp the abysmal conditions and imprisonment Scarlett has endured along with the inevitable crushing of any hope of escape that she may have tried to hold onto. At one point, Scarlett says she was told she was in a specific country but she really doesn’t know that for certain–after all she only sees four walls and the sweaty bodies of men on top of her. We accept her story while the police are skeptical. At another point, she describes how a girl being trafficked was shot in the head–one of the investigators wonders if Scarlett may be making this up and even questions if her tears are real. And this brings me to the crucial part of the story–at some point Scarlett moved from being a victim to being seen as thoroughly corrupted and part of the criminal problem. She is as objectified by the establishment as she is by the pimps and the johns. Because she is 25 when she’s found in a brothel in Briarstone, the police don’t understand why she doesn’t run away, but that’s the whole point. After ten years of this life, where do you run to? Who wants you? A young, innocent girl is stolen from home, but that young girl–while maintaining a strong character–has become an incredibly cynical human being who will probably never be able to trust anyone or have a normal sexual relationship again.
Stories have hit the news about real-life victims found after years locked up by some sexual predator. Kept in horrendous circumstances, beaten and subjected to the sort of physical, sexual and mental torture few could withstand, of course the big questions in these cases are: how can these people adjust back to any sort of normal life? They’ve been damaged, but at what point are people damaged beyond repair? How much recovery can take place?
I think, of course, of Steven Stayner, who was kidnapped at age 7 & held by a sexual predator. He managed to escape at age 14 taking another victim with him, but died in a motorcycle accident at age 24. In an interview, Steven, who had problems adjusting, once said “I don’t know sometimes if I should have come home. Would I have been better off if I didn’t?” In a bizarre twist to this story, Steven Stayner’s brother Cary is a serial killer.
But back to our story of a 15 year old girl who is tricked into a life of prostitution and then rescued 10 years later. Bravo for presenting Scarlett’s story stripped of any prostitution mythology, and bravo again to the author for tackling some important social issues. Unfortunately, Scarlett’s story was so effective, so gripping that the rest of the novel couldn’t compare in readability.
Thanks to Caroline for directing me towards Elizabeth Haynes in the first place with her review of Into the Darkest Corner