Reader’s Journal: Two Mysteries

I seem to be on a mystery kick, but then, it is summer. It must be something about the warmer temps and the (stifling) humidity that makes me want to read about crime. As recently as six or seven years ago, I almost never picked anything in the mystery/crime genre on my own. No no no. While I credit Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know for drawing me in, the book that finally convinced me that mystery/crime and literary fiction were not mutually exclusive categories was Tana French’s In the Woods. Since then I’ve read all of French’s books, discovered authors such as Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott, and watched the literary world revise its view of psychological thrillers in particular. They’re rather trendy these days, and so enter two new(ish) novels: The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison and The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood.

For some reason, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is being marketed as this year’s Gone Girl. In truth, the only things The Silent Wife has in common with Gone Girl: both books are about a relationship gone awry, both books contain a twist of sorts, and they both are told from alternating points of view. The Silent Wife begins promisingly enough: Jodi and Todd have been together for well over two decades (they have a common-law marriage). A part-time psychotherapist, Jodi is an expert at glossing over the unpleasantness in her life—including the fact that Todd is a serial cheater—and in the lives of her clients. In fact, she mostly refuses to treat clients who suffer from anything more serious than insecurity and a vague melancholy. Todd, a real-estate developer, has not only made a highly questionable choice when it comes to his latest conquest, but he’s also decided he cannot go on living a lie, and so the disintegration of the relationship begins.

The Silent Wife is narrated in close third person, so it lacks a necessary immediacy. (Okay, I’ll say it: the kind of immediacy the reader gets in Gone Girl). Add to that, both characters are unlikable in the most pedestrian sort of way. Now wait a minute—I don’t mean I want them to be likable! I want them to be unlikable in an interesting or charismatic way. Because they both lack charisma, the book overall lacks tension. The reader never feels pulled to root for one over the other, which is critical in a she said/he said narrative. I suppose some readers might feel bad for Jodi because she’s the wronged party, but that’s so very Lifetime movie. Harrison gives each of them some underlying childhood problem (to explain how they are, I guess), but really…if they were guests on a talk show, you’d change the channel. And so the novel plods to the not-so-big twist and lands with a dull thud. I gave it 2 out of 5 stars.

The Wicked Girls is British journalist Alex Marwood’s (a pseudonym, by the way) debut novel. In 1986, two eleven-year-old girls are involved in an incident that leads to the death of a young child. They are found guilty and punished by the law, and perhaps more so by the media and the public. When they are eventually released from prison, they are issued new identities and instructed never to contact one another again. More than two decades later, a string of murders in the seaside resort town of Whitmouth brings them together again. Amber Gordon is the head cleaner at Funnland, Whitmouth’s amusement park; Kirsty Lindsay is a freelance journalist. When Amber finds a dead woman in Funnland’s House of Mirrors, the police take notice and begin to believe they have a serial killer on their hands. Kirsty is sent to Whitmouth to write about the murders. The reader learns rather early in the book who the killer is, but the real story in The Wicked Girls is Kirsty and Amber, and how current events threaten the lives they’ve built for themselves over the last quarter-century. Throughout the course of the book, Marwood tackles serious issues such as Britain’s struggling economy, unemployment, sensationalism in media, and the rehabilitation of young offenders. The story moves back and forth in time between present day and the events in 1986; present day events are told in third person mostly from Amber and Kirsty’s points of view.

Reading The Wicked Girls reminded me of reading something by Laura Lippman—Every Secret Thing comes to mind—or Tana French. Like Lippman, Marwood does a terrific job of letting the story be character-driven, so it’s never overwhelmed by issues. What reminded me of French was how Marwood writes about place, which lends well to the overall sinister feel of the book. The heart of the novel deals with lies, misunderstanding, and miscommunication. Much of what happens in past and present has to do with how characters perceive themselves based on how other people have treated them. The book has a few rough spots–the killer is one readers have seen before (of the “women are sluts who ask for it” variety), and the pace begins to drag at the end. The flashback chapters also go on for too long; the pacing would have been helped by Marwood getting to the past accident/crime quickly, and then either dropping the flashbacks entirely or focusing more on what happened to Kirsty and Amber during and after prison. The ending was also somewhat unsurprising. I skimmed through the final chapters, I admit, but ultimately the book still worked well. It was less that I wanted a surprise ending—truly, it has the right ending, it felt organically inevitable to the rest of the story—than that Marwood could have taken a shorter road to get there. I’m hooked, though, and looking forward to her next book. I gave it 3 out of 5 stars.

Full disclosure: I received both books from NetGalley.

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