Julie Corbin‘s latest novel sits somewhere between cosy mystery and crime thriller. It centres on a trio of mothers whose children attend the same primary school and begins with one of the children bringing home a threating handwritten note tucked into her schoolbag. Subsequent notes reveal personal secrets about adults in the community and even begin to pose dangerous threats.
This focal premise of the schoolbag notes is an effective hook that raises plenty of questions as the plot unfolds. Who is writing the notes? What is their intention? How do they know the parents’ secrets? How far are they willing to go? And the further we progress, one of the main questions that evolves is how the culprit is managing to hide these notes in the first place. The setting and plotlines are all fairly domestic, like an episode of Motherland, but with more sinister undertones. Adultery, abortion, divorce, and dishonesty all come into play, but there’s never anything explicitly violent, sexual, or gruesome, apart from some strong language from time to time.
Protagonist Nina is admirable as a headstrong mother with a successful career and devotion to her friends and children. However, it’s impulsive best friend Bel who makes for a more distinctive character. She blurts out secrets and is fiercely protective of those around her, making her more unpredictable and engaging. The final member of the central trio, Rachel, is less unique with fewer memorable traits and personality quirks other than that she seems particularly sensitive and secretive. Nina’s husband Robin is an effective villain of the novel – a serial cheater who becomes more malevolent and threatening as the plot progresses. He’s perhaps a little stereotypical, though, and its unclear why Nina was ever drawn to him in the first place, especially since she seems so savvy and strong-willed.
The structure of the final act is interesting. The mystery of the schoolbag notes is resolved well ahead of schedule, and instead, the novel’s finale shifts focus to the subplots, culminating in a severe twist. The surprise is engaging but tonally might feel a little incongruous to the rest of the text.
On the whole, Whispers of a Scandal is successful in its lane. The school-note premise is fairly sedate for a “psychological suspense thriller” – as it’s being billed by publisher Hodder and Stoughton. However, it’s a decent page-turner with plenty of intrigue, mystery, and payoff.