Tag Archives: murder mystery

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Every now and then I like to pick up an Agatha Christie book, because no one writes complex murder mysteries like Agatha Christie. This time, I picked up her 1933 Hercule Poirot novel, Murder on the Orient Express, because 1. it’s going to be a movie later this year that I’m interested in seeing, and 2. it fulfills a slot on my 2017 reading challenge: a book based on a true story.

About the book: Hercule Poirotmurderontheorientexpress (world-famous detective) needs to make quick arrangements to get back to London, which lands him on the almost-full Stamboul-Calais coach of the Orient Express. What he doesn’t know is that he has hurried onto a train in which a murder is about to take place–and when it does, who better to solve it than the renowned detective? There is a doctor on board, and a director of the train line, who follow Poirot step-by-step as he interviews each of the surviving passengers on board, examines their luggage,  and uses logic to assemble a solution that sorts truth from lies–and identifies a shocking murderer… or murderers. To complicate matters, at the same time the murder was being committed, the train hit a snowbank and has been unexpectedly stopped on its track, away from stations and civilization–which means that the culprit/s must still be on board, feigning innocence and posing further threat to those remaining.

“All around us are people of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.”

This murder features a complex but logical conclusion. Poirot is an observer of psychology, and extremely skilled in putting together clues and discrediting lies with cunning attention to single words or phrases, or the exact placement of items. Christie presents the clues… and then Poirot shows all of the characters the “obvious” solution they’ve been missing all along, the truth that’s been hiding in plain sight.

In this particular case, though, I don’t think there is any possibility for the reader to guess the final solution before it is given. Poirot discusses the clues in the narration, but he also holds back details. For instance, there’s an important grease spot in this story that is noted briefly as a clue. But Poirot does not point it out to the others on his team until he knows what it means. And until he confides its meaning to them, the reader would not be able to figure out the answer to its presence because the crucial placement of the spot is not divulged in the narration until the time when the solution is presented. Although this is only one small clue, it is a good example of withheld information– and when there is information withheld from the reader, the possibility of the reader being able to reach the same logical conclusions as Poirot decreases. It is possible that the reader could make a wild guess and be right about the murderer/s and motives, but it’s not possible for the reader to follow the clues to that conclusion. For that reason, this book will appeal more to readers who like to be led through a well-crafted mystery, but not as much to mystery readers who like trying to solve the case themselves before the solution is revealed.

“But have I not heard you say often that to solve a case a man has only to lie back in his chair and think?”

The only downfall is the wide cast of characters. Christie presents around a dozen characters with equal importance, giving only the most necessary details about each of them, one after another. It can be difficult to keep them straight throughout much of the story, and furthermore, it can be difficult to attach any sort of like/dislike to any of them when they’re all given this equal weight in the narration. If the reader can’t keep them separate in mind and maybe choose a potential murderer or two to stake a guess on, it can be harder for the reader to feel invested in the characters, and thus in their story.

Additionally–and I’m still on the fence about whether this is a strength or weakness–there’s quite a bit of diversity in this book, and it’s noted in the narration. Normally that’s a good thing, but here it’s also used as a sort of plot device. Different characters are judged in their ability to murder in certain ways by their nationality. I do not pretend to have any psychological training or skill in identifying patterns of murders, but it seemed odd to me that an Italian would be more suspect of a murder simply because it was a stabbing than an Englishman. Or for an American woman to have a more likely murderous temper than a Swedish or German woman. I appreciated seeing multiple nationalities, multiple languages being spoken, etc. but I did think that they were played upon rather oddly while Poirot and crew fished for suspects.

About the ending: there are some interesting twists in this book, but none so great as the end solution to the mystery. I was more pleased with the ending than any other part of the book, because the end is both terrifying in its implications and humorous in the conclusion that the investigators choose to accept. The book wraps up quickly, but is stronger for doing so. I wish I could say more without spoiling the book, but I will say that it’s my favorite end to a Christie novel so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was nearly a 5 star book for me, but I had so much difficulty keeping a few of the characters straight. There was a helpful chart with the layout of the train carriage and the passengers’ sleeping berths on it, and I did reference that repeatedly, but some sort of appendix that would’ve given me the key details on each character would’ve helped further in keeping the names attached to the right facts. But either way, this is definitely one of the best (maybe even the actual best) Agatha Christie book I’ve ever read. I was not bored or overly confused at any point, like I occasionally am in Christie’s complicated mysteries. I want to read more Christie. And I want to see the new movie adaptation for this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. Choose And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie if you’re looking for a similar mystery. This one features ten characters stranded on a small island, where they all begin to die one by one. Everyone is suspect until they’re dead–but will the mystery be solved before there’s no one left?
  2. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great new psychological thriller with one key detail in common to Orient Express: a murder has been committed on board a ship at sea, which means that the killer is still on board. In this book, though, the journalist investigating the case finds herself also in danger of being killed, and her attempts to find the truth are further complicated by the fact that no one else on the ship will admit the dead woman ever existed.

What’s next: I’m currently reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings, the second book in his Song of Ice and Fire series (perhaps more commonly recognized by the name of its first book, A Game of Thrones.) Check back soon to see if the second volume is as fantastic as the first.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Final Girls

When Riley Sager’s slasher thriller Final Girls appeared in the Book of the Month selections for July, my first thought was that it was the wrong time of year for so much gore and horror. But there’s been so much talk about it being the thriller of the year that I had to pick it up, even though it’s not October yet.

About the book: Quincy is a Final Girl. final girls.jpgDuring her sophomore year of college, she spent a weekend at a cabin with five friends, and was the only person to leave alive. How does one come back from something like that? Quincy is still figuring it out. She’s got her baking blog, her victim money, her loyal boyfriend: Jeff, and the cop who rescued her from the massacre ten years ago: her friend and protector Coop. It’s been both a blessing and a curse that she can’t recall the hour of bloody gore that ended her friends’ lives, but now it’s time for Quincy to remember. One of the other two Final Girls has been found dead, and the second just showed up at Quincy’s door, for friendship or blackmail, no one’s quite sure. Could she and Quincy be the next targets? And why is Quincy so afraid that He is still out there, the lone killer she remembers running from through the woods around the cabin, the murderer she saw shot the same day she escaped? She’s right about one thing: the danger is still out there, and no one is safe.

“I’m his creation, forged from blood and pain and the cold steel of a blade. I’m a […] Final Girl.”

You know those cheesy old horror flicks that are as funny as they are scary, where the kids make stupid choices and can’t stay upright when they’re trying to run and some crazy guy (or lady) in a mask walks around slowly with a bloody weapon and kills them all? At first, this book seems exactly like reading one of those movie scripts. It’s complete with new college students staying alone in a cabin in the woods, most of them more concerned with teenager things like birthdays and losing their virginity than with the safety precautions they laugh at. There’s love and love triangles, the ominous glimpses of a single, all-purpose knife, an illicit party with illegal substances, the inevitable ghost stories, and they’re all wrapped up in their own worlds. Enter: escaped asylum patient. Even ten years later, Quincy’s life looks a little cheesy. She’s got a bland boyfriend, a cutesy blog, a permanent Xanax prescription, and she’s most definitely not one of those Final Girls, she’s moved past that.

Except she hasn’t. Just when you think you’re in for an eye-rolling cliche, Quincy shows that all of those details are a shield, and the real Quincy is pretty messed up underneath. The reader has to think twice (at least) about what she’s capable of… and what condemning secrets are hidden in that missing hour she’s blocked from her mind. No one believes she’s really forgotten that night, except maybe Quincy from force of trying.

“I became a blur, a smudge of darkness stripped of all my details.”

Once the mystery starts, all resemblance to those cheesy horror films fades until the only similarities left are the murders themselves and the constant ominous details, the literary equivalent of the scary movie sound effects and slow pans over sharp edged objects and moving shadows. Everything is described with reminders that death is the focus of the novel, and murder is never far from the reader’s mind even in relatively safe scenes:

“I close my eyes, wishing sleep would grab me by the throat and drag me under.”

“I fall silent once I’m actually inside. I don’t want Pine Cottage to know I’m here.”

The best part of this book (and any good thriller) is the unpredictability. Almost every single character looks suspicious, with the exception, perhaps, of the bland boyfriend, Jeff. No one is who they appear, although some characters are more up-front about their true nature than others. I always make a guess about the killer when reading a mystery or thriller, and this time I was truly shocked– so shocked that I couldn’t stop reading until I knew everything, which led to my reading this entire book in one day. The balance was just so perfect–that light cheesiness at the beginning that kept the book fun and self-aware, and then the more intense plot twists and increasing danger as the mystery picked up. I didn’t love all of the characters, but I loved the story that was forged between them.

” ‘What’s that name the papers call you?’ ‘Final Girls.’ I say it angrily, with all the scorn I can muster. I want Detective Hernandez to know that I don’t consider myself one of them. That I’m beyond that even now, even if I no longer quite believe it myself. ‘That’s it.’ The detective senses my tone and wrinkles her nose in distaste. ‘I guess you don’t like that label.’ ‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘But I suppose it’s better than being referred to as victims.’ ‘What would you like to be called?’ ‘Survivors.’ “

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This has absolutely been one of my favorite thrillers this year, and you can bet that I’ll be recommending it to all my thriller-reading friends. This book was published under a pseudonym, so I don’t know if the author will stick with that and keep publishing more books like this, but I hope to see another Riley Sager thriller on shelves in the future because I know now to pick those up immediately. Final Girls has reinforced my interest in the genre, and my appreciation for Book of the Month Club. I can’t wait to read my August selections.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes was a BOTM selection earlier this year, another thriller-with-a-twist. This one veers into another genre at the end, which would spoil the book to talk about, but if you’re looking for mysteries with shocking twists, this is the one. It starts a little slow as a sort of domestic mystery, but the pace and the stakes pick way up at the guaranteed-surprising end.
  2. Anything by Gillian Flynn would be a good fit for Final Girls fans. If you haven’t read or seen Gone Girl yet, you’re missing out on the thriller that made me fall in love with thrillers, and if you don’t want to read that one you should pick up Sharp Objects or Dark Places, both of which are fantastic and will probably scare you.

Coming up Next: I’m just finishing Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, a short fantasy novel about the place where the world as we know it meets the world of faerie. Tristran Thorn, the main character, has one foot in both worlds and needs them both as he sets out on a dangerous quest to retrieve a fallen star for the girl he wants to marry.

What are you reading for a thrill this August?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Into the Water

I remember when I picked up Paula Hawkins’ debut thriller, The Girl on the Train. It was the end of summer, 2015. I was in my favorite bookstore in my college town, browsing before I checked out the books I needed for classes. At that point, I had never heard of Paula Hawkins or The Girl on the Train. I had barely any experience with thrillers in general. I picked it up on a whim, and I loved it. So when I heard she had a new book coming out in 2017, I had to check it out. Here’s what I thought about Into the Water.

intothewaterAbout the book: Nel and Jules Abbott grew up in Beckford, near the Drowning Pool. They’d heard the stories of the women who had died there under all sorts of circumstances. Jules thought she had left that place behind for good, but Nel was too obsessed to ever let it go–until her obsession cost her her life in that same infamous section of the river. Now that she’s dead–exact cause to be determined–Jules must return to settle her affairs and take up custody of Nel’s teenage daughter. The investigation hits a snag, though. Not long before Nel’s death, a teenaged girl committed suicide in the Drowning Pool, and the deaths seem to be connected by some unlikely thread. Someone has all the pieces–is it the local policeman and his family? The mother of the girl who committed suicide? Nel’s daughter or sister? The “psychic” trying to keep a standing in Beckford? Everyone’s connected, and yet each story is distinct, a braid of woven threads rather than a single strand. But until the mystery is solved, there’s no telling who’ll be next to go into the water.

“You didn’t tell the truth, you never did–the stories you’d been telling weren’t the truth, they were your truth, your agenda.”

About the layout: Jules Abbott, sister to the most recently deceased woman, addresses her narrated sections to Nel. At first seems confusing, because she’s the first narrator of the book and early in the section there’s also a general “you” being used; it took me a minute to figure out that a sort of second-person narration was in play (although she also narrates herself as “I” and “me,” in the first-person narrative style), and then it took me almost her entire first section to understand who that “you” was aimed toward. Once that’s cleared up, though, it’s one of the most interesting aspects of the book. The fact that Jules seems to center all of her thoughts around her sister, to address every impression and emotion first to “you,” someone who is gone, is deeply compelling and unsettling at once.

“You were never the princess, you were never the passive beauty waiting for a prince, you were something else. You sided with darkness, with the wicked stepmother, the bad fairy, the witch.”

Then we have Lena solidly in the first person; she’s the daughter of the dead woman, and although she does care deeply about certain characters, she’s the youngest and the most self-centered, which makes this other switch in narrative style equally fitting for her character.

“I lay on my bed in silence. I can’t even listen to music because I feel everything has this other meaning that I didn’t see before and it hurts too fucking much to face it now. I don’t want to cry all the time, it makes my chest hurt and my throat hurt, and the worst thing is that no one comes to help me. There’s no one left to help me.”

Other than these two exceptions, the characters of Into the Water are given short, alternating sections of third-person narration.

“She was not the woman she used to be. She could feel herself slipping, slithering as though she were shedding a skin, and she didn’t like the rawness underneath, she didn’t like the smell of it. It made her feel vulnerable, it made her feel afraid.”

I would hardly call this book a thriller. A mystery, a murder mystery, but not a thriller because of the nature of its tension. Into the Water is not a breath-snatching, heart-pounding hurricane wave of clues and deceptions and danger, but an unrelenting current of unease, of nagging suspicion and dark inevitability. The evil lies not with a single person, but spread through everyone in the town. Whether Nel jumped or was pushed, no one in this tale is innocent, and the secrets are bound to wash up after the storm of deaths and accusations passes.

“I thought how odd it was that parents believe they know their children, understand their children. Do they not remember what it was like to be eighteen, or fifteen, or twelve? Perhaps having children makes you forget being one. I remember you at seventeen and me at thirteen, and I’m certain that our parents had no idea who we were.”

I’m not convinced any of these characters really know who they are at present, either. This is as much a story of self-discovery as a revelation of the people each character thought they knew so well. None of them are particularly likable, but they’re captivating. They’re creepy. They’re the best sort of characters to read about in the dark, maybe with the sound of water moving in the background.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was not the page-turner I expected, but considering I hadn’t known anything about the story going in, I’m not sure I can justify having expected anything. I liked the mystery, though. I liked the flawed characters and their messed-up secrets. Well, I didn’t like them particularly, but I wanted to see what had made them that way and where it would lead them. It wasn’t my favorite book of the year or anything, but I had no trouble finishing it in just a couple of days and I’m still 100% committed to reading whatever Paula Hawkins publishes next, so I’d call it a success.

Further recommendations:

  1. For a more thrilling tale of water-related intrigue, check out The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. (Or just read it in preparation of Ware’s new release coming out in July, also related to drowning.) In this one, a journalist on a new leisure boat must get to the bottom of the absence of one of the passengers that no one else on the boat will acknowledge ever existed.
  2. If it’s the characters who kept you going in Into the Water, check out Erika Carter’s Lucky You, a literary fiction book about three women and one boyfriend who go off to live in the woods to escape civilization. They’re looking for a change, looking for answers in their unhappy lives, but the problems lie within themselves and none of them can get off their respective paths of self-destruction.

What’s next: I’m currently reading my next Cassandra Clare book, as part of my quest to read all of her novels this year. Now that her newest release, Lord of Shadows, is almost out in the world, I’m pretty eager to catch up to that point. I’ve got a few more to read first, though, starting with Clockwork Prince, book two in the Infernal Devices trilogy. It’s a reread for me, but I don’t remember much, so you’ll have to wait for my upcoming review to see what trouble Tessa and her new Shadowhunter friends will be finding in Victorian London this time.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Big Little Lies

I’m a little late on the Big Little Lies train, but I couldn’t let the train pass altogether without hopping on. I’ve been meaning to read a Liane Moriarty book for months, and although this one wasn’t originally my first choice, I love a good book-to-TV adaptation and I had to check it out.

biglittleliesAbout the book: On the Pirriwee Pennisula, children come first. Maybe children always come first, but for this batch of kindergarten moms, mysterious bullying in their kids’ class divides the parents even more dramatically than the children. Although the child being hurt won’t confess the identity of her abuser, she does select a scapegoat who, along with his mother, takes the brunt of the blame. No one can be sure whether this little boy is bullying or not, so of course the parents get involved, instructing their children to stay away from him or to be especially nice to the poor wrongly-accused child, depending on their opinions in the matter. Things get even more out of control at a parent event where the truth about the bullying finally comes out–as do some other upsetting details of wrongs that have been committed at the parents’ level. There’s adultery, abuse, even murder–proving that the bullying isn’t confined to the kindergarten class. Jane, Madeline, and Celeste are the three friends at the middle of it all, but even they can’t stop the madness. Someone is going to get hurt. Maybe everyone. Isn’t it possible that the bickering at the adult level is teaching the children to behave the same way toward each other?

“Did anyone really know their child? Your child was a little stranger, constantly changing, disappearing and reintroducing himself to you. New personality traits could appear overnight.”

About the layout: the book opens on a scene at the school trivia night, a parent fundraiser gathering complete with costumes, alcohol, and…death. Our narrator for this scene is a woman who lives across from the school and hears the screams and sees the ambulance coming in. After that, the narration goes back to the beginning of the school year, focusing on the three main parents’ interactions with each other and their children. The timeline proceeds as a countdown, marking how much time is left before the fateful trivia night. Mixed into this chronology, though, the reader also sees dialogue boxes from interviews with the parents and the police detective that come after the trivia night. This way, we see multiple perspectives on the main events both from a present perspective and a future one, after it all blows up at the trivia night.

I don’t want to say this book is catty, because it’s more than that. There are minor characters who seem to be present solely for their cattiness, but it wasn’t the little dramas and confrontations that kept me invested in the story, it was the overarching tension of waiting to discover the child bully and his/her motivations. The thing about Big Little Lies is that it’s full of opinions–sometimes the character who presents them can indicate whether or not they’re meant to be taken seriously, but sometimes it’s up to the reader’s judgment. There are mildly infuriating comments, but there are also comments whose agreeableness surprised and delighted me–comments about how people should treat each other, how to cope with difficult news or events, how unfair the world is in some regards. Here’s one I found interesting:

“I mean, a fat, ugly man can still be funny and lovable and successful…but it’s like it’s the most shameful thing for a woman to be.”

Personally, I really liked the writing style. I found it wonderfully revelatory of different sides of human nature. Except for the catty characters, everyone is sympathizable. Even the “bad” guys, the parents that are set against the main protagonists, aren’t unreasonable. What would you do if your five year-old daughter was being secretly bullied for months? Maybe a lot. It’s great to see a story where every side has its merits. I must have been reading a really early edition of the book, though, because there were a lot of mistakes, typos and mixed up names and details. I mean, no one’s perfect. Sometimes mistakes are missed in published works. This one just seemed to have an unusually high number of them. Even that, though, didn’t turn me off of the writing. Moriarty makes some excellent choices with her adjectives. I would say the writing style was the high point for me here.

The downfall, though, was this:

“Ever since Madeline had first mentioned Saxon’s name on the night of the book club, there had been something niggling at Celeste, a memory from before the children were born…That memory slid into place now, fully intact. As though it had just been waiting for her to retrieve it.”

This is my least favorite thing to see happening in any book, but especially in mysteries and thrillers. It is such a cop out for the biggest clue of the story to have been in the character’s possession the whole time, to be conveniently picked up at the most shocking moment. You may have listened to me rant about this before. The thing is, with mysteries of any pace, the fun is trying to guess whodunit and whether it was the candlestick in the library or the knife in the kitchen, etc. It’s an injustice to the reader to make them guess for 400 pages and then say, “oh, I’ve been holding back the key detail so you never really had any chance at it anyway.” The best mysteries/thrillers are the ones with all the details woven in before the pieces are assembled, in such a way that the big reveal is both obvious and unexpected when it arrives. The memory that Celeste suddenly retrieves here? It could have been woven in earlier to better affect.  I would have given this book a whole extra star if it hadn’t been for the short excerpt above. But alas…

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The fact that I liked the writing style and the story in general up to the point of the misplaced memory indicates to me that I should try another Moriarty book. What Alice Forgot is currently sitting on my shelf, but I’ve also heard good things about The Husband’s Secret. I don’t really know much about either one, but I’ll be eager to give one or both of them a try this summer now that I’ve had a taste of Moriarty’s writing. I’m not sure yet about when I’ll watch the Big Little Lies episodes. Now that I know the whole plot, I think I want to let it settle a bit before I watch.

Further recommendations:

  1. For a mystery/thriller with multiple layers (and the key details woven in perfectly without ruining the surprise ending), check out Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. The protagonist of this story is also a young mother with a small son and drama in the divorce, but this one is about so much more than family and social ties. And, of course, the writing is also superb.
  2. Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger is also a good choice for readers interested in a teacher tormented by trouble both at school and at home. Although this protagonist isn’t a parent, she must deal with the school drama on top of suspicious and slightly terrifying events occurring at her home that seem to revolve around murder. Things get so much more complicated when it looks like all the incidents are connected.
  3. You should also try Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door if you’re a Big Little Lies fan. This one’s a mystery about a missing baby–the parents go next door for a dinner, leaving the baby asleep in her crib, and return to find her gone. The four at the dinner each have their own secrets–and one of them knows what happened to the baby. Or at least, they thought they did…

What’s next: I’m reading Sarah J. Maas’s YA/NA A Court of Wings and Ruin, finally. This is the third book in the Court of Thorns and Roses series, and I’ve been dying to find out what will happen after the cliffhanger of book two. But book two was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and I didn’t like book one as much, so I’m trying to keep my expectations at an appropriate level while also admitting that I probably will read all 700 pages of ACOWAR in just a couple of days.

Do you like to stay on top of popular book trends, or just read what you feel like, when you feel like it? Do you read popular books after the popularity has waned?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is a staple of the mystery genre for a reason. I recently read one of her best-known stand-alone novels, And Then There Were None, which did not disappoint. This one’s a thrilling classic.

About the book: Ten people have been lured to Soldier Island, all under false pretenses of andthentherewerenoneemployment or a summer holiday vacation. By the end of the very first night, however, they discover that they’ve all been lied to, that some of them have kept secrets from each other, and that the systematic elimination of every one of them has already begun. The next morning, after a thorough search, the already-dwindled party realizes that they are in fact alone on the island–if there really is a murderer, he or she is hiding in plan sight, posing as one of the potential victims. Can they discover who it is before it is too late?

“He said: ‘Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.’ “

The characters–the heart of any novel, in my opinion–have been expertly crafted. Not a single one of them is lovable, and yet they are all uniquely colorful and curious beings. Every single one of them is accused of murder; some of them admit freely to killing, and yet, they are all so afraid to die. There is something wonderfully freeing about meeting morally suspect characters: they seem perfectly capable of doing absolutely anything, from making the most heroic sacrifices to the darkest betrayals. The characters of And Then There Were None are not necessarily good people, but they are good to read–wild cards one and all. The most chilling aspect of the tale is that under the premise of the killer hiding among the others, he or she must necessarily be acting the part of a frightened victim as well as the truly terrified ones. He or she must be crazy enough to set up an elaborate ten-murder scheme, but also sane enough to remain undetected even as everyone begins to look at each other suspiciously.

” ‘Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet unassuming people. Delightful fellows.’ “

As for the technical aspects of the story: the narrator is an omniscient third party, who focuses on one character at a time and can describe that target so closely that his or her very thoughts are exposed. This is a precarious technique for a story in which the murders are ongoing and the narrator must not reveal which character is the culprit. Christie handles it fantastically. There are times when this narration allows for the reader to make guesses as to the killer, and times when it helps the reader by supplying information to eliminate one. Christie keeps readers on their toes by seeming to close all the doors of possibility, and then pointing out a window that has been left open. This mystery would not be possible without the narrator Christie gives it.

I am also particularly fond of the format Christie employs in this novel; the chapters are further divided into distinct subsections. The action frequently flows without break from one into the next–even in the middle of a conversation–and the subsections are relatively short, which together make the book easy to read and read and never stop. There’s nothing especially unique about this layout, but it’s my personal favorite: a nearly continuous stream, presented in bite-sized pieces.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one had been on my TBR for a little while, but I was in no hurry to read it. Then out of the blue a friend lent me her copy and I decided it must be time. I’ve read some Agatha Christie stories prior to this, and enjoyed them, but none of them have stuck in my mind. This one, I think, won’t be leaving any time soon. I was completely caught up in the story, and the plot was masterfully crafted. The reader sees each character’s thoughts and actions, and still cannot deduce who is the culprit. I can’t resist that. I’ve heard of a YA book entitled Ten that is supposedly very similar to this one, and I think it might be interesting to check that out in conjunction with this one. Perhaps in the next month or two while this one’s still fresh in my mind I’ll find a copy for a comparison.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a 2016 thriller in which a woman goes missing on a small boat. The only passenger who believes the woman existed at all is a journalist who realizes the killer must be one of the other passengers. As she persists in seeking the murderer–convinced that anyone aboard might be next to die–it becomes apparent that the journalist herself may be a target.Check out my complete review here.
  2. Robert Galbraith’s (J. K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first book in a modern mystery series set in London. A detective down on his luck, along with the secretary who’s more of a partner despite the fact that he can barely pay her, sets out to work against the police and popular opinion to find a murderer from a cast of seemingly innocent characters. No one could have done it–but yet, one of them did. Check out my complete review here.

Coming Up Next: I’m currently reading the final book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, titled Winter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the myriad plot threads from the first three books finally come together here–and how the story will look after reading Fairest, a companion novel following the villain’s perspective. I’ve already read Fairest and will include my review of that book and how it relates to the series along with my thoughts on Winter.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Killing Forest

I took a bit of a hiatus from reading lately for a short road trip, but I’m back and just as excited about books as ever. The last novel I read was Sara Blaedel’s The Killing Forest, the second book published in English from a popular Danish crime series. I read the first book, The Forgotten Girls (click here for a complete review), earlier this year and was, if not exactly disappointed, not much impressed, either. But it did intrigue me, so I thought after a break I’d give this second book a try.

About the book: Louise and Eik are partnered up again as a new case brings them back to Louise’s childhood home of Hvalsø and unearths old secrets tangled up with Louise’s past. This one is much more personal for her because the current case of a missing fifteen year-old boy who has been living near a sacrificial site in the forest seems to be inextricably linked with several other cases, including Klaus’ death. Klaus was Louise’s great love twenty years ago, but now Eik is beside her as they search for answers and closure before the religion-turned-cult that rules the town can cover up the truth–again. The members of a secretive Asatro circle have formed a brotherhood based on silence and lawlessness, leaving death and terror in their wake that make it difficult for Louise and Eik to pin them down for any crimes. Not only are the crimes elusive, but the rouge Asatro band also conceals its members. What began as a recognized religion for worshipping nature has become an excuse for murder, prostitution, kidnapping, and unhindered revenge. When the gang declares war on Louise and her friend, Camilla, no one is safe, especially those on the inside.thekillingforest

” ‘You don’t kill somebody for leaving a group of friends,’ Louise said. Then Klaus came to mind. ‘This is no group of friends,’ he said. ‘I thought you of all people had that figured out. This is hell. No one gets out.’ “

The downfall: I still feel like I’m missing pieces of the story. Not necessarily key details, but information about relationships, and background facts. Part of this, like my response to the first book, is that the books of this series published in English are not the first books in the Danish series. English readers are coming into the game six books or so behind–think of all that characterization lost.

Another factor, I think, may be the translation. Something about the writing feels too matter-of-fact, too uninspired. It doesn’t feel like one of those works were the author slaves over every last sentence, though I doubt Blaedel was careless or rushed in choosing her words. Sometimes in literature a single word can convey everything you need to know about someone or something, and the difference between two synonyms is crucial to the reader’s interpretation of a scene. Perhaps there are nuances lost between the two languages that gave me the impression that parts of the story were a bit dry. See, the plot is woven so well, and in this book the reader is given answers to many of the questions that plagued me in The Forgotten Girls, so that it’s hard to believe Blaedel herself is the one leaving anything wanting about these novels. The story is presented competently, but not excitingly. It feels like a translation rather than an original work.

“For a moment everything stood still. Including her heart, Louise feared for a moment. But then her rage exploded from a place inside her she’d never felt before. Her fingertips turned cold, but the colors around her suddenly grew brighter, as if her senses were no longer deadened from anxiety.”

That said, I think the plot of The Killing Forest is much improved from The Forgotten Girls. There are more personal investments for the characters, and real uncertainty about whether more crimes will be committed before the culprits are caught–or even whether the police will be able to hold the suspects in custody at all. The double layer of present and past cases gave depth to the characters, showing change over time. Camilla and her new husband, Frederick, own the land on which the forest crucial to the story stands, and their proximity leads them to direct rather than peripheral involvement, making them more essential to the story than they seem in the first book. The story is much more exciting in this one, much darker, fulfilling my dashed hopes from the first book. I was a little reluctant to start this one, with my underwhelmed impression from the first book fresh in my mind, but The Killing Forest turned out to be a quick and immersive read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I have hopes that with future books this series will prosper, but I was impressed by the level of improvement already from the last book to this one. You may be able to read The Killing Forest as a stand-alone novel, if this one seems more interesting to you than the first book. There are a few details carried over from The Forgotten Girls that would be missed, but Blaedel does a great job of filling in the blanks on past events in The Killing Forest, reminding readers of crucial details from The Forgotten Girls and even exploring farther back in the past than the last book allowed. The Forgotten Girls opens doors to a myriad of questions, and The Killing Forest answers them. If you’ve read the first book, even if you were not impressed, I would recommend continuing on with this one. If you haven’t read either, and crime fiction is your niche, you should pick up at least this second one. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for future books in this series, as well. And if you’ve already read and enjoyed this book…

Further recommendations:

  1. As intense crime fiction goes, James Patterson is the American master. If you like Louise, you’ll appreciate her American counterpart, Lindsay, of Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series. The first fantastic book in this set is 1st to Die, and you won’t regret picking it up.
  2. Another great murder mystery writer is Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series is set in London and features an enigmatic private detective and his persistent assistant, Robin, as horrid criminals hunt them down in the city. You can read my complete review of the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, here.

Coming Up Next: I’m currently reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a futuristic novel about video gaming that incorporates 1980’s culture. I’ve been putting this one off because I’m not much into video games and I wasn’t alive in the 1980’s, but neither of those factors has been a problem so far and I’m finding the story truly captivating. It even has footnotes, which I find fascinating in fiction. Check back soon for a complete review.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: All the Missing Girls

A murder mystery told backward. That’s one I hadn’t heard before. If you haven’t tried it yet and love reading uncommon techniques, check out Megan Miranda’s debut adult thriller, All the Missing Girls. It’s a gasp-out-loud shiver-inducing sprint from cover to cover.

About the book: Nic(olette) has escaped the clutches of tragedy and suspicion in Cooley Ridge, NC–or so she thinks. Ten years ago, her best friend went missing after a night at the town fair, and the investigation–although unfruitful–poisoned the town with rumors and doubts. Nic couldn’t face staying in town with her friends and family, and immediately set on a path to get out. Her father, however, has been losing his mind and burning through his savings, which brings Nic back to town to help her brother sell their father’s house. It’s supposed to be a temporary trip, a short break from her fiance, a trial to be suffered through and quickly forgotten, but on the night of Nic’s return, a second girl goes missing and every detail of the old case is forefront news again. Nic is reunited with her old crew, secrets that have been kept quiet find new ears, and somehow, Nic knows, the two cases are connected, because the danger is brought right to Nic’s back door–which sports a broken lock that clearly doesn’t deter trespassers.

About the layout: This book is divided into three sections. The first part shows Nic at her new home in Philadelphia, with her smart, wealthy fiance and the life she built for herself away from the horrors of her childhood home. The second part, as advertised, is told backwards (pay close attention to details here–they all matter, and if you miss something you’ll be flipping back and forth trying to pin it down). The double murder mystery takes about two weeks to resolve, and is narrated with each day described from beginning to end, in backwards order. The third part shows where the pieces fall in the aftermath.

allthemissinggirlsFor the first half of the book, up to Nic’s first week in Cooley Ridge (the second week narrated), I feared the story was letting me down. There didn’t seem much benefit up to that point of a backwards structure, but the tension flies sky-high in the second half as the reader begins to realize no one can be trusted–least of all our narrator. Nic mentions a few times that she, like everyone else, hid things from the detectives in the first case ten years ago, but it’s not until we’ve seen a solid week of the second search for a missing girl that we start noting a few jarring differences between what Nic says early on in the book (late in the case), and what we see has actually happened previously. Nic is a consistent narrator throughout, though, and while she seems to refrain from lying to the reader outright, she’s remarkably adept at half-truths. This makes sense, structurally; for the reader to see the end of the search and not have the keys to unlock the mystery until the end of the telling (Nic’s first day back in town) clearly something must have happened immediately upon Nic’s arrival that she’s concealed in her future narration.

And that is what I love about this book: all of the characters–especially the narrator–have complicated backgrounds and are wholly untrustworthy, or so it seems. There are a few gems, but everyone is shady enough to bear the brunt of suspicion at some point in the book. There are no stereotypical characters here. Secrets keep their lives twined together, but the fact that they all have different secrets also isolates each one of them, adding to the possibilities for uncertainty and deception. Nic’s closest allies are all tied up in the disappearance of the first girl–when it becomes clear that she is gone forever, doesn’t it mean one of them must be a murderer? Who can she trust?

“They were people you called with news: I met a guy. I’m engaged. I got a new job. To share the highs and the lows. But friends to call for deep things, the things that live in the dark spaces of our hearts? Those people didn’t exist for me any longer.”

The best/worst aspect: Megan Miranda’s writing style. This is simultaneously the downfall and the upshot of this book for me.

Downfall because there are a few aspects that are too spelled out, comments that are too on-the-nose: especially the mentions of time-out-of-order being able to teach you something. This statement varies and multiplies throughout the story, even making it into the dialogue once, and that annoys me more than anything else in the book. I want to be able to see the benefit to learning the story out of order, rather than be promised repeatedly that there is one. I did appreciate the unusual chronology after the mystery was solved, but the book was still trying to point out that it was out of order and that that was a good thing. There are a few other comments–about the setting, mainly–that also felt a little insulting to my reading intelligence to have pointed out, but the time references are the the most cringe-worthy.

The upshot, though, is the fantastic creepy vibe of the story. The characters and the town itself are described so well and made so complex that I felt I knew each of them well, and yet still wasn’t quite sure what they were capable of. Cooley Ridge is small enough for everyone to know 2/3 of everyone else’s life, enough that surprises are pleasantly jarring but have enough wiggle room to be completely believable. At times I trusted the characters so thoroughly that the police and the unjustified rumors seemed like an unfair enemy battling good people, but there were other times I distrusted them so completely that I knew the police were eerily spot-on with their questions and their assumptions about who wasn’t as good as they seemed. The descriptions, combined with Nic’s thoughts about the fragility of life, give a skin-crawling sensation that really make the story–even at times when there seems to be no imminent danger, there is always that creeping feeling that something is slightly off. The characters, to an extent, are willing to embrace darkness. It was this tension that kept me turning pages.

“How quickly you might go from something to nothing. How one moment you can be a girl laughing in a field of sunflowers, and the next, a haunting face on a poster in a storefront window. How terrifying, empty and hollow, and then: how absolving.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. The end of this book had so many surprises that I kept guessing wrong, then reconsidering everything and guessing again. The unpredictability was so addicting that I couldn’t put the book down. Before I got to that point though, the tension from the backwards structure made things slow and awkward. I read Nic’s arrival to Cooley Ridge and wanted to know what would happen next, but was thrown into the thick of things two weeks later. I read what happened two weeks later and wanted to know further results, but was sent back to what happened in the middle. It was hard to restrain myself from picking through the book to find the specific days I wanted to read most, and that was an uncomfortable struggle I didn’t enjoy. It was minimal, and the slow parts would certainly be more interesting in a second read-through after all of the character’s pasts have been revealed, but it did disappoint me enough in this first read to keep me from giving it all 5 stars. I am glad I bought it though, to peruse the different parts of the timeline at my leisure. There’s a lot in this book worth looking at closely.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a great thriller with similar levels of mounting anxiety and uncertainty about which of the people in the main character’s small environment may be a murderer. This one also uses a non-chronological structure for some elements. Check out my full review here.
  2. For an even more haunting and gory tale (perfect for October) check out Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, another small-town thriller that hits the narrator close to home. The main character of this one also harbors an unsolved murder case in her past that is the topic of much speculation, and a present day event brings old danger to her life all over again.

What’s next: Earlier this year I read Sara Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls and finished the book with mixed feelings (you can read my review here for more info). Now I’ve got my hands on her second book in the same series, The Killing Forest, and I’m giving these characters a second chance. Stay tuned to find out whether Blaedel’s second murder mystery about Danish investigator Louise Rick hits the mark.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant