We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker, Henry Holt & Co, 2021, 370 pages, $27.99
Adolescent outcast Duchess Radley is 13-years old and has had the responsibility of caring for Robin, her five-year-old little brother, for as long as she recollects. She’s not honestly even sure whether they’re full siblings because her mother, Star Radley, is a dysfunctional “hot mess” of addiction and depression.
Their small single-parent family lives in the coastal California town where Star grew up, but she’s estranged from any family and they find little solace in the familiarity of the place. As a teenager, Star’s 7-year-old younger sister Sissy was a pedestrian roadside accident victim and Vincent King, one of Star’s 15-year-old classmates went to prison for driving the car that killed her. The testimony of Vincent’s best friend, “Walk” Walker helped to send him away.
Thirty years later, “Walk” is now in his mid-40s and the Police Chief of his sleepy cliff-side California hometown. It has taken that long for Vincent to be released from prison because of the subsequent murder of another inmate on the inside which had all the elements of self-defense, but for which Vincent fails to use that plea.
One night Star Radley gets roughed up during her shift as a part-time bar maid and her hot-headed daughter Duchess takes matters into her own hands to get revenge against the bar owner she assumes is the abuser. Duchess’ impetuous act of retribution triggers a domino effect in which Star is murdered in her home in the wee hours of the night while Duchess is out buying a cheap plastic toy for her brother’s forgotten birthday at the all-night convenience store.
When Duchess arrives home, her mom lies dead of a gunshot wound and other injuries and authorities are tending to her traumatized little brother who was sequestered in a closet and can’t tell anyone what happened. Newly released Vincent is in the home and has reported the death, but won’t say anything in his own defense and the murder weapon is nowhere to be found.
What ensues is a murder investigation in which the state authorities want to settle on the most obvious answer, but Chief Walker is determined to investigate on the side, despite progressive health problems that threaten to derail his search. He recruits an old flame, also from their high school, to serve as the defense attorney at the trial and tries to convince himself of his childhood friend Vincent’s continued innocence.
Meanwhile, Duchess and Robin move miles away to live with their biological grandfather, but are thrown into the foster care system after the grandfather’s unexpected death. Is his death something sinister that the children have brought on him or an unconnected crime? We Begin at the End has lots of plot twists, psychological drama, and emotional intensity that mirrors multiple lives lived in the shadow of regret for past misdeeds. It examines themes of loyalty, culpability, and loss of innocence and is made outstanding by the characterization of Duchess, the fierce child protagonist.
Author Chris Whitaker lives in the United Kingdom and works part-time at his local library. His first book Tall Oaks won a Crime Writers of America award.
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference and Local History Librarian at May Memorial Library. She can be reached at email@example.com.