But what if the artist has a hidden agenda, a belief that the skill needed to capture a face could also be used to manipulate public perception and help condemn those who have committed terrible crimes?
Lancashire-born Kate Helm – better known to many readers as Kate Harrison, author of The 5:2 Diet Book and the Soul Beach trilogy for teenagers – has used a new nom-de-plume and her experience as a journalist covering courts and crime for a dark, deep and electrifying debut thriller with a killer sting in its tail.
Starring a troubled young woman with a devastating secret from her childhood, The Secrets You Hide has a truly original concept at its core… can a courtroom sketch change the way we see a person, and could it be used to subtly alter the course of justice?
‘In my portraits, I build up the layers, to reveal people as they really are, the secrets they hide even from themselves… once I have made a man look guilty, there is no way back.’
Georgia Sage knows full well that she has an unusual gift… she can see evil in people, and as a courtroom artist, she has been able to condemn them ‘with a smear of pastel.’ Her pictures paint a thousand words, and none of them are good.
But what those around her don’t know is that a brutal and tragic event in her own childhood means she knows innocence is even rarer than justice.
Lonely, wary of others, and reluctant to commit to close relationships, Georgia lives a solitary life by the sea in Brighton with trips to London for court work, an area of her life where she is confident and comfortable.
But when she accepts a commission to be featured in a book about artists in the field of justice, she is drawn back into the trial that defined her career… the case of a twisted family betrayal in which a man nearly lost his life while saving children caught up in a fire deliberately started by his own son.
As she revisits the hero father, Jim Fielding, in Gloucestershire, doubts are raised about Fielding’s character and whether his teenage son, Daniel, was truly guilty of the disturbing crime for which he was jailed.
Georgia begins to wonder whether her own reckless pursuit of justice may have helped the guilty go free.
As she is haunted by sightings of a small boy in a red football strip and gets closer and closer to the truth behind the Fielding case, something happens that threatens not only her career but also her sanity.
She fears her guilt around the events in her childhood is finally coming back to haunt her… but the truth is even more terrifying.
Georgia turns out to be the classic unreliable narrator, painting a picture that is as full of nuances, subtle suggestion and disconcerting unreliability as one of her court sketches.
And the joy for the reader is that she is just one of the many fascinating and cleverly drawn characters who walk, talk, trouble and tease us through the pages of this twisting, turning tale of tragedy, revenge, guilt and revelation.
The meat of this psychologically exciting and well researched story lies in discovering the truth not just about Georgia’s hidden past but her interpretation of the strange visions that haunt her life and whether her judgments of guilt and innocence can be trusted.
There is an impressive emotional depth and sensitivity to Helm’s writing which makes Georgia’s thought processes and experiences all the more powerfully affecting, and her actions all the more credibly human.
As the mystery deepens and the menace increases, Helm ratchets up the tension for a denouement that is both shocking and unexpected.
Packed with insight and masterful storytelling, this is the perfect book to set tongues wagging at reading clubs!
(Zaffre, paperback, £7.99)