“The Prized Girl: a Novel,” Dutton, by Amy K. Green

At age 14, Jenny finally had her fill of beauty pageants. She would no longer allow her mother to paint her face with makeup, dress her in age-inappropriate outfits and drag her to those hideous competitions several times a month.

“The Prized Girl” of Amy K. Green’s title just wanted to know what it would be like to shed her beauty queen image and be a normal eighth-grade student. She never got the chance.

As Green’s debut novel opens, Jenny is already dead — raped, stabbed and discarded in the woods not far from her family home in a small New England town. Police promptly arrest a simple-minded, middle-age man who had been obsessed with the girl, attending most of her pageants and exchanging notes with her.

To Virginia, Jenny’s unemployed, alcohol-addicted, 20-something half-sister, the police investigation looks superficial, the suspect too convenient. So she worms her way into the case by befriending the lead detective.

Green, a screenwriting and film production professional, tells her complex tale in two alternating narratives. One, a series of flashbacks written in the third person, follows Jenny as her rebelliousness and anger at her family grows, making her increasingly reckless. The other, narrated by Virginia, shows her methodically identifying a series of other possible killers, sometimes by working with the detective and other times by striking out on her own.

Together, the two accounts gradually reveal a high degree of dysfunction in Jenny’s family, a terrible secret that has haunted Virginia for years and an evil that has stalked the little town’s teenage girls for a generation.

The characters — especially the two sisters, their parents, Jenny’s boyfriend and the detective — are complex and well-drawn. And Virginia’s relentless search for the beauty queen’s killer is filled with stunning twists and a shocking surprise ending.

The author’s only misstep comes toward the end when she unnecessarily ties up loose ends by having several characters fill each other in on details that have eluded them — but that readers already know. But this shouldn’t deter readers from appreciating a psychological thriller that is otherwise expertly told in a crisp, fast-paced style.

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