Title: The Guilty One
Author: Lisa Ballantyne
No. of Pages: 480
Genre: Suspense, Fiction
Origins: William Morrow Books
Bottom Line: Decent mystery but the true strength of the novel lies within its review of the nature versus nurture debate as Dan flashes upon the path his own life might have taken and the future that may befall Sebastian.
“An eight-year-old boy is found dead in a playground . . . and his eleven-year-old neighbor is accused of the crime. Leading the defense is London solicitor Daniel Hunter, a champion of lost causes.A damaged boy from a troubled home, Daniel’s young client, Sebastian, reminds Daniel of his own turbulent childhood – and of Minnie, the devoted woman whose love saved him. But one terrible act of betrayal irrevocably shattered their bond.As past and present collide, Daniel is faced with disturbing questions. Will his sympathy for Sebastian and his own memories blind him to the truth? What happened in the park – and who, ultimately, is to blame for a little boy’s death? Rethinking everything he’s ever believed, Daniel begins to understand what it means to be wrong . . . and to be the guilty one.”
Thoughts: Danny is a successful solicitor, but he once faced a future of incarceration and hardship until the love of his foster mom pulled him away from the proverbial brink. When Danny is asked to defend Sebastian, a ten-year-old boy accused of murdering his eight-year-old friend, he feels compelled to comply not only because of the boy’s age but because of the parallels between his and Sebastian’s paths. Thus the stage is set for Lisa Ballantyne’s The Guilty One, equal parts psychological thriller and social commentary that is bound to keep people talking this spring.
There are two parts to The Guilty One, simultaneously fascinating and damning towards social services and children in danger. Told in the present day, the first story follows as Danny fights to maintain Sebastian’s innocence in light of the horrid charges of which he has been accused. Sebastian’s youth as well as his not-so-innocent childhood reminds Danny of his own boyhood, setting the stage for the second part of the story. This second story, of Danny’s childhood anger and tendency for violence, is told as memories, brought to the forefront of Danny’s memory through his ongoing interactions with Sebastian. A reader understands how the two characters, as boys, were very similar even as they came from very different socio-economic backgrounds. In both cases, the fate of each boy hinges not on the government services which were created to protect and save such children, but rather on two separate individuals who have no cause to care.
Along the same lines, the differences between legal age of adulthood in Great Britain as opposed to other countries, as well as other differences in the legal systems themselves is at once fascinating and informative. Those readers with young children near Sebastian’s age will wonder how any country could consider someone as young as the age of ten to be an adult in the eyes of the Court. It is this very disconcerting thought which allows readers to view Sebastian in a much more sympathetic light than he might otherwise cause. In actuality, Sebastian raises all sorts of red flags within a reader, but it is his young age that allows a reader to ignore the doubts created by those red flags and consider him an innocent child exposed to the cruelties of the world too young.
Danny is a complex character. It does not take long for a reader to recognize the demons which drive him to defend the accused and which keep him in a state of isolation and loneliness. There is an anger underneath his calm veneer that he never quite sheds, which is frightening in its intensity and intriguing due to its ambiguous roots. His conflicted and often violent emotions towards Minnie, a women he still revers as well as reviles, only fuels the mystery behind their separation. Because of Danny’s self-imposed isolation, a reader is left with equally ambiguous feelings towards him. His anger distances readers even while it creates an undercurrent of sympathy with someone who had such a rough childhood and a never-ending desire for love and acceptance. This myriad of emotions Danny engenders in the reader adds significantly to the tension of Sebastian’s trial.
One would be remiss without mentioning Minnie, the true heart and soul of the story and Danny’s literal savior. She is a woman only a few people are lucky to meet, and her love for Danny is profound. Her own painful secrets are tragic, but it is her willingness to put Danny before her pain and suffering, as well as her courage in light of Danny’s violent outbursts, that endears her to readers. One cannot help but condemn Danny ever so slightly for distancing himself from her so fully after everything she did for him, and his current suffering caused by his own regrets seem completely justified. Minnie’s scenes will quickly become a reader’s favorite, as she is the type of character which is larger than the two dimensions to which she is trapped.
The Guilty One is a taut mystery, not only about Sebastian’s role in the crime, but also about the situation that would have driven Danny from the safety and love of Minnie’s care. Danny has a depth of character to him that adds to the suspense of the story and helps bridge the gulf that Sebastian may create within the reader. The story itself drags only slightly, as readers may become impatient with the sheer number of flashbacks and interruptions from either story. Also, a reader may take issue with Danny’s extreme reaction to Minnie’s “crime” once it becomes known. Still, there are some fascinating points for discussion regarding innocence, western criminal systems and social services that will make this book a great read for book clubs and anyone interested in psychological dramas. The ending is particularly chilling, even if it is slightly predictable, and the entire story remains engaging in spite of its minor flaws.