Tag Archives: murder mystery

Review: The Last

Summer is the season of heat and light and beach reads, but for me it’s also when the dark and spookies start settling in, and I like to reach for something more chaotic. And so I came by Hanna Jameson’s The Last, a suspenseful apocalyptic mystery set in an atmospheric old hotel. As soon as I heard about it, I knew I would have to get my hands on a copy.

thelastIn the novel, Jon is staying at a large hotel in Switzerland for a conference when nuclear war suddenly wipes out many of the world’s major cities. The hotel guests (including Jon) spiral into a panic; many leave to catch planes that won’t be flying to return to families that no longer exist. Jon remains at the hotel with several strangers who opt to wait for help to arrive. When a dead girl is found in the hotel’s water supply, Jon takes charge of investigating the obvious murder as a means to keep busy. He suspects that the killer is still living among them. As life goes on for the few that remain, it becomes difficult to know who to trust, what is real, and where to draw the line between right and wrong.

“Is this it? I mean, for humanity. Am I the last person alive making notes on the end of the world? I’m not sure whether I would rather already be dead.”

Part dystopia, part murder mystery, part character study, part political/social commentary, part psychological suspense, and part horror novel, this is a book full of surprises. The essential end of the world provides an eerie backdrop, while Jon’s quest to hunt down an unknown murderer lends structure and plot to the novel. The tension of this story does not derive from a burning need to win justice for this girl (most of the characters are surprisingly indifferent to her death) as much as from a desire to uncover the secrets of the other guests stranded in the hotel, and to discover what extremes they might be driven to in the absence of recognized law and authority. The cast of suspects is large, and red herrings abound. I would be beyond impressed by anyone who manages to guess the true culprit before reading the final sequence- the reveal requires a certain level of suspended disbelief, but it does win points for unpredictability. Furthermore, this desperate world full of lies and radiation is made all the more compelling by how closely Jameson ties this nuclear war to our real world’s current political climate.

Though the story is formatted as a record of events written by Jon, he is open about his own biases and faulty memories. Despite the fact that his writing the story at all means he has already survived the dangers being described, the tension of the story is not lessened by this inherent evidence of his safety. Jameson makes it clear that anyone else- friend or foe- is fair game, and there’s a frightening psychological aspect behind every small discovery. The unflinching look at the morally-gray heart of humanity prevents stagnation. Crimes and disagreements within the hotel require the group to make tough life-or-death decisions. There is so much depth behind what is, on the surface, already a dark and captivating premise.

“Existing isn’t everything.”

The characters all come unique and fully formed, though learning their pasts and motives does not prepare the reader for anything these people might try next. But let’s take a moment to look closer at our narrator, Jon. In a story brimming with remarkable characters, I was struck by the unfortunate impression that Jon is the most boring, straightforward person we could possibly follow through this ordeal. Jameson does some interesting things with his characterization, making him receptive to feminism and then throwing him into situations that require him to choose between actively fighting for what is fair or settling for what is easy. His hunts for a child killer stems from an urge to do what is right, but also from a fear of finding himself idle. He is far from a perfect human- and yet, for all the hints that he’s made bad choices in the past, I expected something more extreme than the history that is finally revealed. For all of his flaws though, the biggest obstacle for me was simply that he never stopped feeling like a man written by a woman (an issue that I have only ever experienced in the opposite scenario, finding discomfort in female characters obviously written by men), and I was never quite certain why Jameson chose to make him the lead character. Any one of them could have kept an end-days record. But in the end, this mild confusion wasn’t enough to hold me back from enjoying every single page.

“The only meaning we might have left as a species- indeed, the only thing left that might matter, that might keep us motivated to get up in the morning- is the small acts of human kindness we show one another, and in my compulsion to be helpful, useful, to keep things moving forward, I’ve mostly forgotten to be kind.”

My only other small complaint involves a few inconsistencies that weren’t weeded out before publication. For instance, an entry for one of the most eventful days at the hotel begins with Jon saying that he’s been busy and is writing from the following day. Later within the account of the same day, he mentions taking a break from the group to go up to his room and write the events of the day up to that point. There are a few other details like this that don’t quite match up, but obviously this isn’t a major issue. The plot aligns properly.

As a side note, if you’re a reader who enjoys juxtaposition, let me confirm that The Last pairs perfectly with the first third or so of Stephen King’s The Stand. Though the former features a nuclear “final war” and the later a 99% effective superflu, both are apocalyptic novels that explore life for the few after the deaths of the many. It’s incredible to compare two strong writers’ ideas of the end of life as we know it, and the shreds of humanity that are left. Apparently the answer to “how do I make an apocalyptic novel reading experience more perfect?” is to pick up a second apocalyptic novel.

“I think it was Stephen King who said that the sum of all human fear is just a door left slightly ajar.”

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars. For most of this read, I expected that I would rate The Last as a 4, but once I reached the end I couldn’t think of a single flaw substantial enough to hold it back from a 5. Throughout the week that I read this novel, I was always enthused to pick it up again and find out what would happen next. It was engaging on the surface, and memorable for its hidden depths. It’ll stick with me for a long time, I’m sure. I would recommend this to fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter or Ling Ma’s Severance; though a bit different than both, it’s exciting and introspective on a level that I think will appeal to the same demographic.

Have you read this one? Do you plan to?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Miracle Creek

I have been moving away from mystery/thrillers over the last year or so because I haven’t been able to find books in those genres that manage to surprise and thrill me. But I saw Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek as a BOTM selection for April and thought a courtroom drama with current social commentary looked too good to pass up, even if it did have a mystery element. So I took a chance and read it this month.

miracle creekIn the novel, the Yoo family attends a trial in which one of their clients stands accused of starting a fire that destroyed the Yoos’ Miracle Submarine (a submarine-like enclosure that allows patients to receive controversial pure-oxygen treatments) and resulted in the loss of two lives as well as additional injuries. The woman arrested for this crime is the mother of a young boy who died in the fire, a boy who had been diagnosed with autism. The day of the explosion was the first and only day Elizabeth sat out during the treatment, after making sure her son’s oxygen helmet was hooked to the tank that was soon to be targeted by the arsonist. But as guilty as she looks, Elizabeth may not have been the only person on the premises with the opportunity and motive to start a fire; and if the jury leans in that direction… who committed the crime?

“The first time she hurt her son on purpose was six years ago, when Henry was three.”

There’s a lot to like about this book. The Yoos are an immigrant family from Korea who have been in the US for only a few years and have much insight to offer about that experience. Furthermore, most of their patients are special needs kids; as the narrative shifts through POVs, the reader is offered commentary on autism and cerebral palsy, as well as some of the struggle that comes with parenting children with these diagnoses. And for additional intrigue, the book also showcases the shortcomings of the US legal system as the attorneys become progressively more interested in winning the case without any regard for surfacing truths about what might actually have happened. Each of these aspects is delivered impeccably well and makes the book feel relevant and important rather than presenting as 300 pages of simple whodunnit entertainment.

“It scared Matt a little, how these lawyers could take a given set of facts and spin them in opposite directions… Matt got the feeling that Abe cared about the truth only insofar as it was consistent with his theory of the case; otherwise, not so much. Any new evidence that didn’t fit was not cause to reconsider his position, but something to explain away.”

Unfortunately, it was the mystery structure that threatened to ruin the story for me. Miracle Creek contains both of my mystery novel pet peeves, a combination that doesn’t happen often. The only sort of mystery I consider a success is one that hints at its solution throughout the story and still manages to surprise the reader when all is revealed. A solution that is possible to guess, but that I do not guess correctly. With Miracle Creek I correctly pegged the criminal immediately, and yet the narration makes guessing motive impossible until the author spells it out.

The first issue is specific to my reading experience, and perhaps not a fault of the book: I was able to guess the true culprit of the Miracle Submarine arson within the first twenty pages or so, which made the book’s attempts to confuse and shock me seem like transparent parlor tricks instead, once I knew who to watch for. This likely won’t be a problem for every reader, especially for those fairly new to the genre or those who can resist the urge to make a prediction.

But the second issue is something that I do consider a flaw in the book, though admittedly this criticism may also stem from my personal reading taste: the narration intentionally misleads the reader with numerous red herrings, promoting wrong assumptions, and even withholding key information while providing perspective chapters from the dishonest characters. On top of the added difficulty of investing in characters that are clearly hiding things from the reader, this tactic means that character motives and crime details are impossible to decipher throughout the book. There is no way to engage with the mystery (the “why” and “how” of it, at least. You can imagine how uncommon it is to be able to guess the ultimate solution and yet be entirely incapable of figuring out why that person committed the crime); Miracle Creek insists on using every slight reveal as a twist to further characterization, instead of allowing the reader a true glimpse of the characters before the facts are out in the open. This was the most frustrating facet of the book for me, and left me feeling like the plot was dragging me through the novel and that very little of the information precluding the climax is actually crucial to the mystery.

“That was the thing about lying: you had to throw in occasional kernels of shameful truths to serve as decoys for the things you really needed to hide. How easy it was, to anchor his lies with these fragments of vulnerable honesty, then twist the details to build a believable story.”

This quote is a nice reflection of Kim’s tactic in laying out the Miracle Creek mystery. Though the characters do not outright lie to the reader (to each other, yes), the narration is formatted with the intent of misdirecting the reader from the truth. This happens so often that the reader knows when the characters are making incorrect assumptions, at which point their waffling on about them becomes, frankly, a bit annoying. The red herrings are lightly camouflaged with juicy snippets of shameful truths that slowly reveal each of the characters for who they truly are.

Mystery aside, I did enjoy my time with these characters. I learned early on that first impressions are never accurate portrayals, and liked to see Kim mine each one for hidden depths that made each of them unique and interesting. They’re multi-faceted and compellingly flawed, with a nice mix of relatable traits and specific experiences to share. The medical aspects also seem well-researched and informative. In the end I appreciated everything about this book except for its attempt at mysteriousness. I wonder whether I might have liked Miracle Creek more if Kim had been upfront about the cause of the fire in the beginning, and simply followed these characters through the decisions they make during the trial without trying to shock her readers at every turn. I think that story might have made more of an impact for me.

But I would still highly recommend this book if the premise intrigues you, because I think my reaction has been a bit of an anomaly and I don’t see any reason why this book would be a disappointment to anyone who has a better time with the mystery than I did.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to love this book. When I read the first chapter about the night of the fire, I thought I really would love this book. Sadly, my struggle with mysteries and thrillers continues, instead. But I’m not sad I picked this one up. I would read more from Angie Kim in the future, and I’m still optimistic about my other unread 2019 BOTM selections, which I’m still hoping to catch up on soon!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Dolores Claiborne

One of my friends has gotten into a Stephen King fascination, and apparently it was infectious. I’ve been reading and mostly enjoying King’s novels since I was thirteen (Pet Sematary was the first), so it didn’t take much to get me on board with reading more of his work. Suddenly I find myself on a journey through King’s entire oeuvre (because if you’re going to read 90% of his books why not just read them all, I guess). Next up on the list for me was 300-page Dolores Claiborne, written in the early 90’s.

doloresclaiborneAbout the book: Dolores Claiborne has lived all her life on the Maine island of Little Tall, where she married a no-good husband after discovering her accidental pregnancy. Years later, with her children grown and gone, she’s being questioned by Little Tall police about the suspicious death of the rich woman Dolores worked for as housekeeper; and in professing her innocence, feels she must admit to the murder she did commit to prove her innocence in the one she didn’t.

“Lookin into her eyes was like lookin at the windows of a house where the people have left without rememberin to pull down the shades.”

Though the horror level of this novel is pretty mild, it does have its unsettling moments. Of course it does, with its main character a murderer, another going senile, one just plain evil, and several unfortunate children thrown into the mix. But this is primarily a psychological study of Dolores’s eventful life, and the creepy-crawlies remain mostly hypothetical.

“She’d keep lookin past me into the corner, and every so often she’d catch her breath n whimper. Or she’d flap her hand at the dark under the bed and then kinda snatch it back, like she expected somethin under there to try n bite it. Once or twice even I thought I saw somethin movin under there, and I had to clamp my mouth shut to keep from screamin myself. All I saw was just the movin shadow of her own hand, accourse, I know that, but it shows what a state she got me in, don’t it?”

If you’ve been reading the quotes I’ve inserted so far, you’ve probably noticed that the narration uses dialect. The entire novel is written as Dolores would have spoken it, and this tactic puts the reader straight into Dolores’s mind and life.

I found the dialect itself far more useful (and tolerable) than the half-conversations where Dolores addresses one of her interrogators directly; only Dolores’s part of these conversations is shown, which necessitates some awkward rephrasing of the others’ questions and reiterating of their responses that pulled me out of the story a bit every time. I didn’t need to be reminded so often or so thoroughly that Dolores was dictating this story to someone. A one- or two-sentence explanation at the very start and maybe very end of the book would have been plenty, but Dolores is interrupted and interrupts herself rather excessively throughout the short novel.

One thing that I’m especially watching for in King’s writing this year is his treatment of female characters. After encountering a few worrying instances in his books last year (Elevation, The Tommyknockers) I’ve been interested to see how that might have changed or cropped up differently throughout his writing career. To my great relief, Dolores Claiborne was definitely a step back in the right direction.

“You’ve turned into a decent man. Don’t let it go to your head, though; you grew up the same as any other man, with some woman to warsh your clothes and wipe your nose and turn you around when you got y’self pointed in the wrong direction.”

But there are twenty pages dedicated to spiteful bowel movements, so there’s no forgetting that this is a man writing women, rather absurdly at times.

Once we’re past that hurdle though, there’s no denying that Dolores and her anecdotes are just as captivating as King’s characters tend to be.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty quick read as far as Stephen King books go, and quite enjoyable. I didn’t know before I started that this book is loosely tied to King’s Gerald’s Game, which I’m much more interested in reading now but feel that I shouldn’t yet because I’m trying to dedicate myself to my 2019 TBR system. It’s the first disappointment I’ve had with my January TBR though, so I’m going to stick it out. I do have a couple of other Stephen Kings I can choose from in January, so I’ll try Full Dark, No Stars before the month is over, which is a collection of short stories/novellas. I’ve read very few short stories from King, and am looking forward to checking them out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re new to Stephen King and would rather lean toward the psychological than the full-blown sci-fi crazies, you should also try The Shining, Misery, or The Long Walk (written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman).
  • If you like character studies of women murderers that are amusing but also horrifying, try Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, a recent release about a woman in Lagos, Nigeria who helps her sister cover up the deaths of her boyfriends.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Nutshell

Earlier this summer I read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. I loved it, and wanted to read more of McEwan’s work. The other reason I picked up Nutshell this week is that I finally got back to my library. My library is very small. It doesn’t get a lot of new books that I want to read, so I mostly use the interlibrary loan feature to get the books I want. But I feel bad not checking anything out from my own library when I go in to pick up all the books I’ve requested from other libraries, so I always try to find something from my own library as well. This time, I looked up McEwan and picked up Nutshell.

nutshellAbout the book: A fetus has just gained awareness in the womb. He knows by voice his mother (Trudy) and father (John)… and Claude. For unknown reasons, Trudy is living not with John, but with Claude. He wishes this were not the case, but he can’t do much about it. Nor can he do anything about the dreadful scheme he overhears Trudy plotting with Claude. He comes to realize that they’re planning a murder. The more he learns, the more sure he grows that this scheme is not in his (the fetus’s) best interest, and something will have to be done about it. There doesn’t seem to be anyone else for the job.

“So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for.”

If I were to judge his book based on concept and plotting alone, it would have been a 5-star read, no question. Narrating a book from the perspective of a fetus is incredibly unique and interesting, and at first glance all of the details seem to line up to reinforce the argument that this is indeed the correct perspective for this story. The fetus definitely has its advantages as a witness to a crime: he’s always present but practically invisible, he’s not the most reliable judge of character or motive, and he has a unique stake in the outcome of his mother’s potential criminality. I can’t think of any better plot for this fetus to narrate, or any better narrator for this murder.

But beyond that perfection is the iffy execution of the fetus’s stream of consciousness narration. Again, in theory, it’s an aspect that seems like it should be a great fit for this story– a sort of unformed style for an unfinished being. In actuality, the narration did not seem to fit the story at all.

This is my third McEwan book, and though the subjects and plots of all three have been vastly different, I thought the one thing I could be sure of was loving his prose style. Unfortunately, the prose was the worst part of this book. The fetus’s stream of consciousness is unbelievably philosophical with an advanced vocabulary. I like to think I have a wide vocabulary myself, probably because it’s my long-standing habit to look up every word I encounter while reading that I don’t know. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had to look up as many words as I did while reading this under-200-page novel. Here’s an example- matutinal: occurring in the morning. Obviously I doubt any fetus is thinking the phrase “in the morning” any more than it’s thinking “matutinal,” but it’s a brief example of how the intelligence level of the fetus is unnecessarily jarring.

“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”

Beyond word choice, the fetus as narrator has another problem: lack of agency. Obviously, the fetus does very little throughout the book. Kicking his mother is his tactic of choice, and essentially his only capability beyond observing. The distance between the fetus and the plot is increased by the fact that there doesn’t seem to be much regard between the fetus and his parents. The adults don’t discuss the imminent baby, they don’t seem to want him, and he makes no appearance in their plans. I’m at a loss as to why McEwan chose to create such a disconnect between narrator and story. The confusing part is that the fetus is going to face consequences for the adults’ actions. If his parents divorce, that will affect his life. If they’re dead or imprisoned, that will drastically affect his life. But the fetus’s opinions and desires are constantly changing, which makes it impossible to root for any particular outcome on his behalf.

“We’ll always be troubled by how things are– that’s how it stands with the difficult gift of consciousness.”

Other than finding a murder narrated by a fetus to be an innovatively amusing concept, I think this story would’ve been much better off with a different perspective at the forefront. The scenes in which the fetus faded to the background to highlight the actions and dialogue of the adults were by far my favorite. But there would be losses to the story if any other character narrated it. None of them are who they first appear to be, and placing any of them at the forefront would ruin the twists of betrayal that lend the murder scheme its appeal. So I’m back to the dilemma of being unable to think of any character who could have narrated this story better, and equally unable to think of any story I would’ve rather seen from this narrator. In any case, the pieces just didn’t quite fit together for me here.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad this was a short book because I’m not sure I would’ve made it through otherwise. I absolutely loved the idea at its core, but even though I’ve enjoyed McEwan’s narration in the past it didn’t work for me in Nutshell. I’m still interested in reading more from McEwan, but Nutshell simply did not live up to its potential. I’m not sure which of his titles I’ll reach for next, but I am open to suggestions!

Further recommendations:

  • If you’re interested in reading some of McEwan’s work and have not yet read Atonement or On Chesil Beach, both are much better examples of his incredible writing. Atonement features a young girl who tattles in a situation she doesn’t understand and later learns (and regrets) the dire consequences her actions have caused. On Chesil Beach follows a newly wed couple on their wedding night as the asexual heroine must finally admit to her husband that she’s not interested in the same kind of relationship that he is. Both are intelligent and beautiful.

Is there an author you generally love who has published a book you just didn’t like?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Alienist

I am making forward progress on my 2017 reading challenge! I came across Caleb Carr’s The Alienist through Book of the Month Club, and it caught my interest immediately with its premise as a grisly murder mystery set in New York’s Gilded Age. When I realized it also fulfilled one of the open slots in my reading challenge that I’d been having trouble finding a book for, I knew I had to read it.

thealienistAbout the book: New York Times reporter John Moore is pulled into an unprecedented murder investigation by his college friends Dr. Kreizler, an early American psychologist (or “alienist”), and Theodore Roosevelt, president of New York City’s board of police commissioners. The year is 1896, and society shares a distrustful view of behavioral science, at best. The idea of hunting a serial murderer who blends in with the masses and chooses his victims randomly in a city as large as New York seems such an impossible task that Kreizler and Moore are forced to undertake it secretly, as even such authorities as the police commissioners and city mayor argue that there is no use in even attempting such unconventional methods. But the killer is in the midst of a crisis, both escalating his crimes and daring Kreizler to catch him, and Moore cannot in good conscience let the murderer roam free. So begins a race to save undervalued lives, in which the hunters also become the hunted, and nothing is certain or safe.

“There are moments in life when one feels as though one’s walked into the wrong theater during the middle of a performance.”

The murder mystery portion of this book is full of details to commend it. First there are the characters: the investigative team is made up of different races, religions, and genders. One of Kreizler’s assistants is still a child himself, which helps balance the fact that the murderer’s victims are also children. All of Dr. Kriezler’s assistants are criminals; they’ve been pronounced sane, but their pasts are dark and tragic. The murders themselves are gory and sensational, with just the sort of gruesome nature one expects from a horrifying thriller. The action scenes are fast-paced and tense, the psychology is contemplative and impressive. And the victims are young immigrant boys working as prostitutes who dress as women– a category of citizen either spat upon, taken advantage of, or overlooked entirely by most of New York. Moore and Kreizler’s investigative team advocates fiercely for these boys’ right to a proper investigation; they are among the few who are outraged by their treatment and attempting to right the situation, rather than claiming, as many of their fellow citizens do, that the boys “had it coming” or that the city is “well rid of them.” It’s a surprisingly diverse and inclusive book with positive morals for the time period it presents. For all these reasons, I enjoyed The Alienist, and would recommend it to anyone looking for literature focused on the Gilded Age.

“Kreizler emphasized that no good would come of conceiving of this person as a monster, because he was most assuredly a man (or a woman); and that man or woman had once been a child. First and foremost, we must get to know that child, and to know his parents, his siblings, his complete world. It was pointless to talk about evil and barbarity and madness; none of these concepts would lead us any closer to him. But if we could capture the human child in our imaginations–then we could capture the man in fact.”

But there were also several reasons I enjoyed it less than I should have, based on its intriguing premise and well-crafted mystery.

The first is that this book seems to struggle with deciding whether it wants to be a fictional mystery, or a nonfictional account of the seediness of New York in 1896. The combination shouldn’t have been a problem, but I found that while I was wondering about who the killer of child prostitutes could be, it was rather annoying to be interrupted with very long informational paragraphs about the history of fingerprinting as admissible evidence in court. The narrator of the book does announce that he’s writing this story from a future time (for no apparent purpose other than to share plenty of these historical details once their significance has become apparent), but the writing so routinely skews toward assuming its readers know nothing of life in the 1890’s, and then explaining in depth aspects that fiction readers often need much less prompting to believe. I could have done simply with a one-sentence reminder that police do not practice fingerprinting as a regular means of criminal identification in 1896, and enjoyed the story more. I know this is a subjective aspect to criticize– some readers must appreciate a real history lesson wrapped up in their high-stakes murder stories. Usually I would count myself among those ranks, but I found the educational nature of this book excessive; it was difficult even to feel that the story was truly set in the Gilded Age, with the narrator providing so much more detail about the time period than people generally feel the need to do about their own setting. The Gilded Age felt like a fictional backdrop Moore was exploring rather than the world that The Alienist‘s characters lived and breathed.

Additionally, there’s the matter of Moore himself. He’s a very passive part of the mystery. His area of expertise is the criminal realm of New York (on which he has spent much of his career reporting), but from the very beginning of The Alienist he knows his paper wouldn’t publish anything about the sort of story he’s investigating with Kreizler– which leaves me to wonder how well his “criminal knowledge” and the murder case actually overlap. As the book unfolds, it seems the answer is: not much. He contributes to the group discussions, and does his share of the leg work in the investigation, but essentially he could be anyone. He’s just a warm body, with a specialty much less significant to the hunt than the others. This could have been a much different story from one of the other perspectives, which leaves me to wonder… why Moore?

And the final hangup, for me, was the cringe-worthy “Aw, shucks” nature of the narration. The characters seem excessively fictionalized because of their cutesy dialogue and gestures. In the midst of a serious and gruesome crime spree interspersed with heavier philosophical dialogue and mortally dangerous situations, we find lines like this:

” ‘Well, Sara wasn’t the only one trying to be professional!’ I protested, stamping a foot.”

This is a Harvard alum speaking, a reputable New York Times reporter pulled in on a special murder investigation. He’s gone off topic to gossip about a misperceived romance, speaking with another grown man, emphasizing his failure to behave professionally and trying to further his point by stamping a foot. The novel is peppered with other such corny nonsense and cliches, most notably, as happens immediately after this line, when Moore is demanding to be filled in on some detail he feels excluded from moments before the realization he should’ve had early hits him “like a brick wall.”

But now that I’ve highlighted my complaints, let me send you back to my first paragraph of review that’s full of the things I loved about this book, because those were the reasons I persisted in reading all 500 pages. I remained interested to the very last paragraph in discovering not only who the murderer would turn out to be, but why he had become such a notorious killer. As that seemed to be the purpose of the book, I must say it was a successful novel for me, even though I had much difficulty with the style of its narration. There are some valuable lessons in here, if you’re willing to look for them.

“Every human being must find his own way to cope with such severe loss, and the only job of a true friend is to facilitate whatever method he chooses.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The Alienist is the first book in a historical fiction/mystery duology. It reads fine as a standalone, and I think the second book follows the same characters (from a new perspective) on an entirely different case. But from the synopsis and the reviews I’ve skimmed, I’m afraid the same things I found issue with in this one persist; although I’m glad I read The Alienist, I won’t be continuing on to read its sequel, The Angel of Darkness.

Further recommendations:

  1. Leslie Parry’s Church Of Marvels is set in the same place and time period, but contains much less blatant information about the era– the setting is woven beautifully into a story with connections to the city’s asylums and pleasure dens and general areas of disrepute. The mystery unfolds through alternating perspectives and proceeds at a thrilling pace.
  2. If you’re looking for more history in your murder mysteries rather than less, try Erik Larsson’s The Devil in the White City. This nonfiction book’s subject, real murderer Dr. H. H. Holmes, is the primary subject of Larsson’s Devil. Although this one’s not set in New York, it does also take place in the 1890’s, and features another burgeoning U.S. city of interest– Chicago. This is a book that reads like fiction, but makes no attempt to hide its intent to inform.

What’s next: I’m currently flying through Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder. I’m hoping to stay on track to finish my reading challenge before the end of the year, and The Wonder is my next step in doing that. It’s set in an Irish village and focuses on a girl who can apparently live without food– a miracle? The situation is further complicated when a nurse who’s traveled to see the girl finds herself racing to save the child’s life.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lies She Told

It was the blend of fiction and reality in this thriller’s premise that drew me in. The blurred line between what we create with our imaginations and what we draw from our real lives is one of the most fascinating points of literature for me, so when I saw that Cate Holahan’s Lies She Told was supposed to feature a thriller writer whose latest book reveals eerie clues about a murder close to her own life, I jumped on board.

About the book: Liza and her husband, liesshetoldDavid, are trying to become parents. Liza is taking experimental fertility treatments because she wants to be a mother so badly, but David is pulling away, immersing himself in work, giving up. Liza has not given up, and is also struggling to produce another best seller to revive her dwindling book sales. She’s under so much pressure writing her latest thriller that she lives in a haze, filtered through the eyes of her fictional main character. The hormones from the fertility treatments and the extra alcohol she’s been consuming in response to an upcoming writer’s conference are further muddling her mind, so when lines start to cross between the murder committed in her novel and the real case involving David’s missing best friend, she’s more confused about the truth than anyone.

“The faithful often find themselves blindsided. They don’t suspect anything because they can’t imagine doing something so awful themselves.”

Unfortunately, the intrigue stopped there for me: with the premise. This is one of those books that seemed great in theory, but the execution of the story did not live up to my expectations. That said, I’ve seen some pretty good reviews for this book, so it’s possible that my expectations were too high.

The biggest problem for me was the predictability; I was able to guess almost every reveal before it was delivered, which made the big surprises fall flat. It wasn’t until the last fifty pages that something happened that I truly hadn’t been expecting, though at that point it was getting late and I was getting tired, and as soon as I had been given the information I could see all the clues I had overlooked. I love thrillers that have all the answers woven in before the reveals, so that the big surprises have not only surface shock value, but the shock of highlighting all the clues in retrospect. When the reader could have pieced the puzzle together, but didn’t– that’s a winning thriller, in my opinion. Lies She Told, on the other hand, uses very transparent clues that send the reader little warning signals whenever key details come up. The narrator very blatantly dismisses facts that seem odd, and thus the reader knows exactly what to pay attention to.

One aspect that seemed most promising at first is the metafiction component. Liza’s chapters about Beth, the main character of her new thriller, are interspersed throughout the novel. The back-and-forth format between Liza’s real life and Beth’s supposedly fictional murder make a nice contrast (not difficult to follow at all, though the parallels are clear and fascinating), and provide great opportunity for Holahan to write about writing a thriller. Again, this is something that I love in theory, but that fell flat for me in this novel. Somehow, it felt like a call for attention whenever narration was devoted to the writing process of a thriller, like Holahan was pointing out what her aims were in certain sections so that no matter what else was happening the reader could note that she was paying attention to the right things– not the fact that Tyler’s arms resemble kettlebells, not the cheesy, uncomfortable position shifts in the sex scenes, not the psychiatrist-falling-for-his-patient trope. Instead of fun insights, it felt like seeing the writer’s mental checklist, the mechanics behind the creativity, and those metafictional moments became magic-less moments instead of intriguing ones. The most interesting opportunities, like the one when Liza is asked where her book ideas come from, are dismissed too easily. “They’re just there.” She makes no attempt to consider the question deeper, and from that alone the smart reader knows that this, too, is an important detail.

“To be a writer is to be a life thief.  Every day, I rob myself blind.”

Furthermore, something about the writing style more generally was disagreeable to me. While I respect Holahan for her interesting and vivid metaphors, some of them felt so extremely unusual that they’d pull me out of the story or leave me thinking about something entirely separate from the plot. Take this one, for example:

“Ignorance is never bliss. It is to walk around with a cancer in your colon, one that could be cut out safely within seven years but is instead allowed to grow, undisturbed, while you focus on other matters, unaware that it is spreading to your gut, infiltrating your bone marrow, your blood, all your vital organs until it has twisted your body into something grotesque and unsustainable. Until you’re too sick to survive. I need to know.”

Vivid, right? And yet, what are you thinking about by the end of it? I, for one, was no longer thinking about ignorance or bliss. There are no primary characters with cancer in this story, or any sort of relatable sickness, and yet we have this very close image of it, in excruciating detail. It’s memorable, which I appreciate in a metaphor, but it strays from the story. It convinces me that cancer is terrifying, not that Liza can’t go on without learning what her husband may or may not be up to behind her back.

Of course, even after all of these mildly disappointing factors, my opinion of this book might still have been salvaged if it hadn’t been for the bland ending. Liza’s ending, on the one hand, is strong and eventful. But then she thinks she can do something different for Beth in her novel, and that’s where the story ends– on Beth’s very uneventful “justice.” I was expecting a punch in the final paragraph, a “just kidding, she’s been tricked, something sinister is still at work,” but instead the ends are neatly tied in the least dramatic way possible. Everyone is primed to be on their worst behavior, and somehow, nothing happens. Some people like neat endings where everyone wins, but I am not one of those people.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this book. I really did. I love Book of the Month and I’m always so excited about starting any of the books they’ve selected. At first I thought this one was just starting slow, as some thrillers do, but my appreciation for the book just never grew. Again, I want to reiterate that I don’t think Lies She Told is a bad book. It just wasn’t the book for me.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for a murder mystery with domestic intrigue and carefully planted clues about what’s really going on, try Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, a masterpiece thriller that starts slow and builds to intense suspense, with a perfectly creepy ending.
  2. If you’re looking for a mystery completely out of the norm that’s guaranteed to surprise you, try Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, a previous Book of the Month thriller that quickly became one of my favorite books of the year due to its shocking twists.

Coming up Next: My next review will feature George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series. I have high hopes for this volume, and I’ve been doing that “saving the best for last” thing by leaving this one until the end of the month. But now, down with the Lannisters!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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