From the outset, Kate Weinberg sets the tone in her tense campus debut, The Truants, by signalling the work of Agatha Christie – a twisting murder mystery awaits. On arrival at an East Anglian university, determined to shake off the dull restrictions of home, Jess Walker is thrilled to be accepted by a smart bohemian set, equally resolved on breaking rules. She quickly becomes infatuated with her charismatic English professor, Lorna Clay, who harbours a mysterious past, with links to her students that step beyond the professional.
Filled with fierce friendship, obsessive longing and sexual chemistry, the brooding atmosphere of the first half draws the reader in, as Weinberg nails moody, coming-of-age suspense. The plot tightens as a love triangle emerges, jealousies bloom, and loyalty is tested. Weinberg dresses desire and deceit in witty exchanges, as the fevered chumminess of university life turns sinister.
The second section of the novel adds layers of shimmering heat and isolation, as it leaves the oppressive claustrophobia of the campus setting, switching between South Africa and an unnamed island off the coast of Sicily. However, on foreign soil the plot slows as the focus shifts to backstory and an explanation of events which, to be fair, Agatha Christie does too but a touch more succinctly, retaining tension until the final reveal. That said, The Truants is a clever, intriguing read with more than a nod to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
Focusing on love, betrayal and death, The Truants took Weinberg eight years to write and the preciseness of word choice certainly has the feel of a novel carefully crafted: “Tuesday was one of those high spring days that feels like an insult to a crisis. The trees in the park frothed with pink and white blossom, banks of daffodils so yellow and cheerful they hurt the eyes.” It is a strong, compelling debut, as well as a beautifully written whodunnit.