A lot has been said about contemporary crime fiction featuring ‘complex and flawed’ female protagonists – although, to be fair, it’s only really publishing PRs and bored books journalists saying it. Much was made out of Gillian Flynn’s fantastic Gone Girl and the frankly overrated The Girl on the Train. Aside from the condescending ‘female of the species is deadlier’ cliché, there was little truth of literature behind the froth. In vain did observers point out that most people tend to be ‘complex and flawed’ and that, in any case, the immoral protagonist is as old as Milton’s Satan. (Sophie Hannah’s conversation with a journalist who rang her about ‘grip lit’ offers an amusing corrective. ‘But … so maybe the really new thing is that this new crop of books have female protagonists who aren’t entirely sympathetic – who are maybe a bit flawed?’… ‘Nope,’ I said. ‘That dates back a while too. Nothing new about that.’ ‘Unreliable narrators?’ he asked hopefully. ‘Nope’.’)
Such has been the hype around Maestra that the reader comes to L S Hilton’s novel anticipating a 350-page gangbang. There has been TV promos, bus ads, even a crap hatchet job by Jan Moir (‘It was interesting, though, that despite her sexual bravado, [Hilton] refused to tell reporters her age. The unmarried mother, who has a ten-year-old daughter, would only admit to being around 40’ etc). Maestra sex, though, is rushed and fleeting, more present in suggestion than actuality. You can see why the Fifty Shades comparisons irritate Hilton. If this book does give Paul Dacre a heart attack it’ll be more down to the crisp amorality of the prose than any portrayal of intercourse.
One comparison Hilton wouldn’t object to is Patricia Highsmith, and there’s surely an interesting article waiting to be written about why criminal antiheroes see greater opportunity in Old Europe than in the proclaimed countries of Atlanticist self actualisation. Like Ripley, her protagonist Judith Rashleigh is a dreamer from modest beginnings who flees to Europe. While Ripley escapes his humdrum hardscrabble life in New York, Judith runs from a class-bound Britain that all too often feels like a poorly performing grammar school whose prefects nevertheless act as if it’s the centre of the universe. To her England is ‘pebbledash and Tesco and the vomit in the doorway of the Social, to the bottles stashed in the microwave and the unanswered doorbell, to the smell of cold fat and Rothmans and lurid curry that was my own little bouquet of despair. All the things I knew it was indecent to despise, because they were just the fabric of most people’s lives, yet my contempt for which kept me flinty clean inside.’
Fired from her job at a pretentious auction house, Judith disappears to the South of France with a client from the high-end clip joint where she moonlights for rent money. When she and a party-girl schoolfriend accidentally off the client, Judith sticks the other woman on the next plane home and travels deeper into the heart of the Old World, trying both to solve an art fraud and stay a step ahead of the law. The story has almost enough pace, but not quite enough, to truly take you by the throat. The ending tails out a little. And it’s easy enough to understand Judith Rashleigh in her fury and hedonism and loathing of the mediocre. Still, she’s a great travel companion, and Maestra justifies its hype in part because it’s so much fun – like an airport thriller written by Colette or Zoe Pilger.
Judith’s constant is a love of great art, and there’s a fine passage where she studies Artemisia’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. ‘There’s something domestic about it; the plainness of the sheet, the ungainly spurt of the blood, a curious sense of quietness. This is women’s work, Artemisia is saying, impassive. This is what we do.’ In this marvellous debut, Hilton shows us how deadly such work can sometimes be.