Book review: Widows by Lynda La Plante

Thirty-five years ago, a Liverpool-born screenwriter and author called Lynda La Planted burst on to the entertainment scene with a thrilling six-part ITV crime series that became an instant hit.

Monday, 11th June 2018, 3:57 pm
Updated Tuesday, 19th June 2018, 11:33 am
Widows by Lynda La Plante
Widows by Lynda La Plante

The rest was history for La Plante as she evolved into one of the best-known British crime writers. Her novels have all been international bestsellers and her original script for the much-acclaimed Prime Suspect TV series featuring DCI Jane Tennison won awards from BAFTA, Emmys, British Broadcasting and Royal Television Society.

But in an age where women in every walk of life are winning all the plaudits, it is Widows – a thriller featuring a group of robbers’ widows who attempt a daring heist – which is once more grabbing the headlines, and not least because film director Steve McQueen is bringing his movie Widows, based on La Plante’s original story, to the big screen later this year.

In the meantime, readers can enjoy the original tie-in novel – edited and reshaped by the author for a new audience – and meet the indomitable gang boss widow Dolly Rawlins and her crafty, couragous female co-conspirators as they take up the mantle of their crooked, and now deceased, husbands.

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Packed with high-tension, fast-paced action, an unforgettable cast of characters, plenty of twists and turns, and La Plante’s dark and satirical brand of northern humour, this is crime fiction and excitingly visual storytelling at its best.

Harry Rawlins is not your usual type of London villain. A wealthy antique dealer, he and his wife Dolly are a formidable team but Harry is also an accomplished criminal and money launderer, a man who makes a cold, calculating and lethal enemy to anyone who crosses him.

Although the police – and one detective in particular whose high-flying career was scuppered by scheming Harry – have their suspicions about him, the closet crook has never spent a day behind bars, and his latest plan for a security van heist has been rehearsed down to the smallest detail.

But the job goes disastrously wrong and Dolly Rawlins, Linda Perelli and Shirley Miller are left devastated when their armed robber husbands are blown to smithereens as their Ford Escort van, packed with blasting gelatin, explodes.

Still reeling from Harry’s death, Dolly discovers that he has left her a cache of shotguns, a bank deposit box containing a hand gun, money, and detailed plans for the failed hijack, and a precious ‘ledger’ exposing all Harry’s criminal dealings and cohorts, ‘an insurance for anyone who turned against him.’

And Dolly realises that she has several options... she could forget she ever found them, she could hand over the ledgers to Detective Inspector Resnick, the man obsessed with nailing Harry, pass them on to local thugs Arnie and Tony Fisher who are eyeing Harry’s turf … or she and the other widows could carry out the robbery themselves.

With a million-pound heist at stake, the three women start preparing, and make the startling discovery that Harry’s plan required four people, not three. But only three bodies were discovered in the carnage of the original hijack… so who was the fourth man, and where is he now?

Recruiting hooker Bella O’Reilly as their fourth gang member, the widows are determined to execute their plan. Facing mounting pressure from DI Resnick, and the Fisher brothers, can they stick together and finish the job their husbands started?

It’s easy to see why Widows was such a groundbreaking and phenomenally successful TV series back in 1983… the story teems with brutal thugs, double-crossing villains, dogged detectives, and a cast of charismatic women perfecting their new and crooked trade, and getting the better of the boys in their own back yard.

And just when you think you have the dénouement sussed, La Plante delivers a brilliant coup-de-grace in the shape of a gobsmacking twist in the tail. With nostalgia for older readers, and a voyage of discovery for the younger generation, Widows is an exciting summer crime read with a feisty feminist flavour!

(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)