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“Fallen Angel” by Chris Brookmyre: Lies, secrets and conspiracy theories

The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves, because the truth is, it is so easy to fool ourselves. You’d think it was impossible, but it turns out it’s the most simple thing of all. We all do it, all the time, in fact. It’s why there are two sides to every story, and why each story rarely has one villain and one hero. Facts can be misconstrued, opinions told in a voice of authority making them harder to refute. Especially when told passionately, and with the aim of covering up what’s really going on behind closed doors.

This is what Chris Brookmyre explores in his dark and twisty thriller novel, Fallen Angel. Brookmyre delves into the terrifying secrets that can run under the veneer of a perfect family life, and what can happen when people start asking the right questions, and how far someone might go to keep the answers hidden.


To new nanny Amanda, the Temple family seem to have it all: the former actress; the famous professor; their three successful grown-up children. But like any family, beneath the smiles and hugs there lurks far darker emotions.

Sixteen years earlier, little Niamh Temple died while they were on holiday in Portugal. Now, as Amanda joins the family for a reunion at their seaside villa, she begins to suspect one of them might be hiding something terrible…

And suspicion is a dangerous thing.

Fallen Angel is a dark, disturbing, but honest story with flawed characters and a gripping storyline that has you hooked. At times you want to look away, but you can’t. This domestic noir is a chilling, tense, incredibly well written and superbly crafted story about lies, secrets, power and, of course, conspiracy theories.

Brookmyre isn’t shy with Fallen Angel, encasing a lot of dark themes in this novel: from the treatment of women, the #MeToo movement, power, human trafficking, corruption, and the ethics of media and the tabloids.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have read the blurb and instantly thought of one thing: Madeleine McCann.

It’s not difficult to see the similarities; Fallen Angel seems to echo what happened to Madeleine McCann. A little girl in Algarve, Portugal, goes missing, in a villa, two families are involved, and they are surrounded by conspiracy theories on what people think ‘actually happened’. Brookmyre actually mentions the McCann disappearance in the novel, with Niamh’s story happening only five years prior to Madeleine’s, in a place not too far from where Madeleine went missing.

The thing about Fallen Angels, though, is that its message is centered on conspiracy theories: from debunking them, to how easily they can be formed. And it perfectly mirrors what the McCann’s went through in real life, which makes it all the more chilling and believable.

When Niamh is announced dead, not everyone believes the story when the body never appears. The party line is that she got up and wandered in the middle of the night, got outside and fell over the cliff she loved to throw stones over. But when there’s no body to prove this theory, people start poking holes in it and coming up with their own ideas. Did one of the other kids accidentally drown her and the parents got rid of her body? Was she sold to human traffickers? Did the parents kill her? Was it a case of shaken baby syndrome?

In other words: Was this a massive inside cover up?

This immediately made me think of what happened in the McCann case, to the extent that one of the central themes of this book, as mentioned, is conspiracy theories and how they abound, especially in a world of fake news. I feel like Brookmyre was using the first part of the story of Fallen Angel to highlight what happened with the McCann’s, to show us how easily we can get wrapped up in a conspiracy theory when we feel like we have insider information, or little-known information, or a different outlook from others on a particular topic.

We were all guilty of the exact same thing back in 2007 as the Madeleine McCann case progressed. Some of us are still doing it now 14 years on. Myself included. I mean, who hasn’t at some point sat and discussed what it is they think ‘really happened’ to that sweet little girl? Based on evidence they collated and collected and noticed for themselves?  

Before I even began to write this post I spoke about this exact topic with my boyfriend, Ryan, who was the one who got me this book, no less. Together we compiled a list of the different theories that to this day exist about the Madeleine McCann case…

Firstly, and most commonly, is the theory that her parents tried to give her a sedative to make her and the other children fall asleep so that they could enjoy their night with the other adults. But it then turned into an accidental overdose, which they covered up by disposing of the body. This was explored in the Netflix documentary series.

People also speculated that Madeleine could have been taken to be trafficked, since, at the time, it was reported that there had been an unusually high number of assaults on young girls in that area, as one report said: “Police identified nine sexual assaults and three ‘near misses’ on British girls aged between six to 12 in the three years before Madeleine went missing. In one case from 2005, a ten-year-old girl was assaulted in an apartment Praia da Luz, close to the spot from where Madeleine vanished.” It’s possible someone in the hotel noticed that the children were left in their rooms most of the late evenings/night and could have passed this information on to trafficking groups.

It has also been mentioned that criminals could have abducted Madeleine, acting on behalf of a wealthy childless couple.

Another speculation is that the Portuguese authorities framed the McCanns in a desperate attempt to save the tourism trade in Portugal, since they wouldn’t want other families to be put off going there if they thought it was unsafe for children. With having someone to blame, people would resume thinking of Portugal as a safe place to travel to. This was also explored in the Netflix documentary.

And, of course, you cannot ignore the possibility that she wandered out of the apartment on her own, and was tragically killed in an accident, or drowned in the sea. When she first went missing, no one checked the sea for a body. And wouldn’t that be somewhere a child would head to?

In coming up with these theories, we are silently becoming the people that the Temple family loathe in Fallen Angel. But its human nature, isn’t it? To come up with our own answers based on what we know when the answers we are given leave us unsatisfied or disbelieving?

And, in the case of the Temple family, people are right to have suspicions and theories.

Sometimes the most logical answer is the simplest answer. But what we’re reminded of in Fallen Angel is that oftentimes people are never that simple. Rather, people are layers and layers of secrets and decisions, their motives always remaining hidden, buried in their own hearts.

But what we need to remember is that there are still good people out there, people worthy of our trust and belief and devotion. Hearts worth loving, worth protecting, worth going to bat for. Yes, people surprise us. But sometimes they can surprise us in the best way, too.

But, then, this is just one girl’s theory. What’s yours?

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