“The Child Finder” by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder by Rene DenfeldEntertainment Weekly occasionally runs pie chart book reviews, and I’m tempted to draw my own chart for Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, comparing it to two other 2017 books: Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter and Peter Heller’s Celine. Since all three books were published last year, any similarities are purely coincidental. But like the title character in Celine, Denfeld’s Naomi is a uniquely gifted private investigator who only takes one kind of case: reuniting parents and children. And there’s a heavy fairy-tale element in the book, as there was in The Marsh King’s Daughter. In this case, instead of Hans Christian Andersen, we get the Russian story of The Snow Maiden.

Naomi was herself a lost child who escaped from an abusive situation (one she remembers very little about) and was raised by a loving foster mother. Now she devotes her life to finding missing kids, often solving cases that have stumped law enforcement agencies. In The Child Finder, she is asked to look into the case of Madison Culver, who disappeared three years ago at the age of five. Her parents had taken her to the Skookum National Forest in Oregon, planning to cut down a Christmas tree; in a moment of inattention, she vanished, and a snowstorm covered any tracks she may have made.

“No one could survive for long in the woods. Especially not a five-year-old girl dressed in a pink parka… Hope was a beautiful thing, Naomi thought, looking up through the silent trees, the clean, cold air filling her lungs. It was the most beautiful part of her work when it was rewarded with life. The worst when it brought only sorrow.”

The reader learns early on that Madison did survive—she was found by a deaf-mute trapper, Mr. B, who takes her to his remote cabin and keeps her there, imprisoned in a cellar secured by a locked trapdoor. Madison’s favorite fairy tale was The Snow Maiden, or as she knows it, The Snow Girl; she begins to believe that she had been “freshly created herself, rolled of snow and made of wishes.” Over the years, she gradually works to win the trust of Mr. B, and sometimes gets to sleep in his bed—yes, there is definitely child sexual abuse going on here, though it’s implied and not explicit.

With some help from a friendly park ranger, Naomi goes deep into the snowy mountains to search for Madison. But Mr. B catches a glimpse of her, and is willing to kill to keep his secrets.

This is a beautifully written but often disturbing book; it’s not long, yet I read it over the course of three evenings because the subject matter was so dark. There were times when I felt the relationship between Mr. B and Madison was depicted almost too romantically, but Denfeld herself is a survivor of childhood abuse and I trust that she wrote this story in the way she felt it needed to be told. She is, like her central character, a woman of powerful talents.

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“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the WindowThere’s a great Twitter account called CrimeFictionTrope which satirizes trends in mystery publishing. Sample Tweets: “I can’t believe, after that whirlwind weekend courtship, that my husband is not who I thought he was.” “I applied to be a cop. But was disqualified because I’m not divorced with a teenage daughter I adore but rarely see.” “In my new thriller, a sexy heiress with amnesia almost struggles to escape a serial killer with amnesia. The title: THE GIRL WHO AM I.”

The anonymous writer behind CrimeFictionTrope has Tweeted quite a few times about The Woman in the Window, which seems to tick all of the post-Gone Girl suspense thriller boxes: A damaged, unreliable, alcoholic narrator! Rich white people in New York City! A mysterious trauma that you don’t learn the details of until 3/4 of the way through the book!

A.J. Finn, the nom de plume of William Morrow vice president Dan Mallory, obviously succeeded in his attempt at writing a highly commercial book, since it’s #1 on the New York Times hardcover list this week. (“There is no doubt worth in the kind of writing that only 12 people will appreciate, but I don’t consider that the best use of my time,” he told The Guardian.) I keep telling myself that I’m going to stop reading so many twisty thrillers, which are the literary equivalent of M&Ms, but I was stuck in bed with a cold and I desperately needed a fun, easy read. Suffice it to say that I finished The Woman in the Window in a single afternoon, but I’ll admit that CrimeFictionTrope lurked in the back of my mind the entire time.

Our Unreliable Narrator is Dr. Anna Fox, a child psychologist who has lived like a recluse in her four-story Harlem townhouse (real estate porn alert!) for the past year, due to her PTSD from the event that is fully explained… eventually. She’s on all sorts of psychiatric drugs, but she also drinks Merlot by the gallon. Her hobbies are playing chess online, watching black & white movies, and spying on her neighbors. In a nod to “Rear Window,” she believes she witnesses a murder—but of course no one takes her seriously.

“I shy and shrink from the light, and a woman is stabbed across the park, and no one notices, no one knows. Except me—me, swollen with booze, parted from her family… A freak to the neighbors. A joke to the cops… A shut-in. No hero. No sleuth.”

So much alcohol is consumed in this book that I started feeling a little woozy myself, and I was drinking nothing harder than herbal tea. If you’re looking for the midwinter equivalent of a beach book, or something to keep you occupied on a long flight or a sick day, The Woman in the Window is here for you; the calories are as empty as those in a bottle of wine, but it does go down smooth.

“If I Die Tonight” by Alison Gaylin

If I Die Tonight by Alison GaylinSmall-town gossip has been a popular subject in books for decades now—see Peyton Place for one notorious example—but today, social media means that everyone in town has instant access to word-of-mouth whispers. Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, which deals with the death of a teenager and the swirl of rumor and innuendo that follows in the wake of that tragedy, feels very of-the-moment; she makes it clear that it’s not just the kids who are on Facebook. The parents are there, too.

Liam Miller, a high school football star in the Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, NY, died a hero, according to the local grapevine: he was killed while trying to prevent a carjacking. Of course, if a story has a hero, it also needs a villain, and that role is filled by troubled teen Wade Reed. He fits the (admittedly vague) description of the assailant, and other bits of circumstantial evidence ensure that many people in Havenkill are determined to blame him for Liam’s death.

Wade’s mom, Jackie, is struggling to raise him along with his younger brother Connor, despite the fact that the boys’ father is no longer in the picture—her attorney ex-husband pays child support but is otherwise not involved in his sons’ lives, choosing to spend time with his new family, including his younger second wife. Jackie is a real estate agent, a business which requires her to maintain a squeaky-clean reputation locally; the accusations being hurled at Wade endanger her ability to make a living.

If I Die Tonight also features several secondary characters, including a has-been ’80s pop star named Aimee En (the carjack victim) and Havenkill police officer Pearl Maze. I must admit that I rolled my eyes a bit as Gaylin rolled out the details of Pearl’s tragic past, which has caused her to fall into a life of one-night stands with guys she meets on hook-up apps. Jackie just felt like a more realistic, well-rounded character, and her up-and-down relationship with her two adolescent sons felt very true-to-life.

I’d classify this book as a thriller, but it’s not as over-the-top twisty as other books in the genre. The trial-by-social-media aspect of If I Die Tonight seemed scarily plausible, and will no doubt resonate with anyone struggling to parent teens in today’s brave new world.

If I Die Tonight will be published in the U.S. on March 6 (it was released in the U.K. in August of last year). Thanks to Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International for the advance copy.

“The Wife Between Us” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

The Wife Between UsNow that The Wife Between Us has been written, I kind of feel like there’s no need for any other domestic-suspense-with-unreliable-narrator novel, ever. This book marks the apogee of the genre, featuring a narrator as unreliable as an ’87 Yugo with engine trouble and more misdirection than a Penn & Teller show. It was co-written by two authors, and you can just picture them emptying a bottle of Pinot Grigio together as they gleefully try to one-up each other with crazier and crazier twists.

Like several other novels of its type, such as Michael Robotham’s The Secrets She Keeps and Jane Corry’s My Husband’s Wife, the book tells its story in alternating chapters. We meet Vanessa, the ex-wife of wealthy Manhattan financier Richard Thompson (no relation to the musician, presumably), who has been replaced by a younger, fresher model. Nellie is the adorable blonde preschool teacher who simply can’t wait to have kids (Vanessa never managed to get pregnant) and settle into domestic bliss as the new Mrs. Thompson. Vanessa, reduced to waiting on her former “friends” as a saleswoman at Saks, is determined to stop their impending nuptials. Her chapters are told from a first-person perspective, while Nellie’s are in third, so there’s never a problem keeping them straight.

Is Vanessa delusional (her mother suffered from mental illness)? Jealous? Convinced she has unfinished business with her ex? Did Richard dump her because she’s an alcoholic (there’s a lot of drinking in this book)? Just what is he up to on his frequent business trips? And what skeletons lurk in Nellie’s closet? You can try to guess everyone’s motives, but when everything is finally revealed, you’ll probably be shocked. I was, and I’ve read a ton of these sorts of books. Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, you got me good.

By now, you probably have an idea of whether or not this book is for you, and I don’t want to risk spoilers (you can download the first four chapters here). It’s completely nuts and more than a little gimmicky, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a lot of fun reading it.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the review copy, and for inviting me to be part of the blog tour! The Wife Between Us will be published on Jan. 9.

The Wife Between Us

“The Widow” by Fiona Barton

The Widow by Fiona BartonI have had it up to here with thrillers featuring unreliable narrators and crazy plot twists. I was fully prepared to swear off such books for a while, but my friend Vallery recommended I read Fiona Barton’s The Widow, and I’m very glad I did. This is a first-rate work of psychological suspense.

The novel moves back and forth in time, beginning in 2010, shortly after Jean Taylor became a widow. Her husband Glen was run over by a bus. Just a tragic accident. So why is Jean being relentlessly pursued by the press?

Through flashbacks, we gradually learn that Glen was the chief suspect in the disappearance of Bella Elliott, an adorable toddler who vanished without a trace from her garden while her single mom was briefly busy indoors. Bella becomes a national obsession in Britain—and if you think the attention paid to her case is too over-the-top, I urge you to Google Madeleine McCann—and eventually, Glen is put on trial for abducting her, despite the fact that no body was ever found. He and Jean become pariahs, and making things even more difficult for Jean is the fact that the couple was unable to have children of their own.

I don’t want to give away too much, but The Widow is a refreshingly straightforward combination of psychological suspense and good old-fashioned police procedural, as we get to know the detectives working on the case (and how it becomes an all-out fixation for one of them). It’s also an indictment of journalism as practiced in the U.K., which is all the more interesting considering that Fiona Barton worked for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Mail on Sunday. Reporters in the U.S. can be aggressive, but there seems to be a special breed of newsmen and women in England who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive. As The Widow proves, however, sometimes the subject of a story can bite back and use the press to her own advantage. In Jean, Barton has created a complex and fascinating character.

“Never Let You Go” by Chevy Stevens and “The Marsh King’s Daughter” by Karen Dionne

Never Let You Go by Chevy StevensIf you’re an avid reader, it’s important to have someone whose opinions you really trust who can always be counted on to give you great recommendations. Even though I live far away from her store, Aunt Agatha’s in Ann Arbor, MI, I know I can always rely on owner Robin Agnew’s suggestions. We have remarkably similar tastes! Several of the books and authors I’ve reviewed on this site are ones I discovered via Robin.

Recently, she sent me a copy of Chevy Stevens’ Never Let You Go. I was a little skeptical at first, because from the description, it seemed like a standard “abusive ex-husband gets out of jail and seeks revenge” type of thriller. However, this is a 400-page book that earns its length through a lot of twists and turns. I felt pretty certain I knew where it was going—but I was dead wrong.

The book is told from the points of view of Lindsey Nash, the ex-wife of the alcoholic and abusive Andrew, and their daughter Sophie, now 17 years old. Sophie was just 6 when Lindsey managed to grab her and escape Andrew’s clutches. Infuriated, Andrew got behind the wheel when he was too impaired to drive, and wound up getting into an accident that killed another driver. After serving his sentence, Andrew desperately wants to reconnect with Sophie, and she’s intensely curious about the father she barely remembers. He claims he’s changed, but has he really? Some frightening incidents have Lindsey convinced that Andrew is simply using Sophie to get to her.

I picked up Never Let You Go at around 10 PM figuring I’d read a few chapters before turning in early (at this point, I was about halfway through the book). The next thing I knew, it was 12:30 AM and I was finishing the last page. Even if I didn’t find the characters’ actions plausible 100% of the time, there’s no denying that this is a very compelling read, perfect for that long summer airplane ride or weekend getaway.

The Marsh King's DaughterAnother one of Robin’s picks was Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter. Aunt Agatha’s had hosted an event with the Michigan-based author, and Robin named her book one of the best of the year, so when I saw that Karen was going to be stopping in San Francisco, I trekked out to Bookshop West Portal for her signing. I found her to be such a warm and likable person that I hoped the book would live up to Robin’s praise—and whew, it did!

Dionne and her husband bought 10 acres of land in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the mid-1970s, and stayed for 30 years. So it’s no wonder that she nails the sense of place in this UP-set novel. The Marsh King of the title is Jacob, who kidnapped a young teenager and held her captive in a remote cabin in the wilderness. Their only child, Helena, grew up in these strange circumstances, her only knowledge of the outside world coming from a stack of National Geographic magazines in their cabin. Helena both feared and idolized her father; he taught her how to hunt and track, but he was also capable of astonishing acts of cruelty.

We learn early on that the adult Helena now lives a relatively “normal” life, married with two daughters. She’s still in the UP, but her mother is dead and her father is in jail. Her old life is so far behind her that even her husband doesn’t know about her past. Then one day, the Marsh King escapes from prison, killing two guards and vanishing into the wilderness. Only one person has the skills to find him—the daughter who knows him better than anyone, because he taught her everything he knew. Helena sends her girls away and goes after her dad.

Chapters sent in the present are interspersed with flashbacks to Helena’s past. Dionne writes with authority about life in this rough, rural country; for instance, have you ever wondered what it’s like to shoot a bear? “A wounded bear doesn’t bleed out the way a deer does… Bear bleed between their layer of fat and fur, and if the caliber is too small, the bear’s fat can plug the hole while their fur soaks up the blood like a sponge, so the bear won’t even leave a blood trail. An injured bear will run till it’s too weak to keep going, which can be as far as fifteen or twenty miles.” (If your survival depends on killing animals, you’re not going to be too sentimental about them, though Helena does eventually adopt a stray dog that finds its way to the cabin.)

Unlike Never Let You Go, I took my time with The Marsh King’s Daughter, reading it over the course of a week. It’s a tough, sometimes scary book, but one that truly transports the reader to its harsh yet beautiful world.

“Since We Fell” by Dennis Lehane

Since We Fell by Dennis LehaneA few years ago, an aspiring mystery author friend of mine was told by an agent that her book was fine, she just needed to move the murder way up so that it happened much earlier in the book. That advice is almost always echoed in articles aimed at wannabe crime authors, like this one by Elizabeth Spann Craig: “Usually the murder needs to occur fairly soon in a book. I know my editors like it that way… If we have a lot of chapters before the body’s discovery, they probably just function as set-up or backstory… which is never popular with editors.”

Now, rules are made to be broken, but I have to wonder if a writer less prominent than Dennis Lehane had turned in Since We Fell that his editor would have gone at it with a machete. A murder is teased in the first sentence of the book, but then the next 200 pages or so are all character development: the story of a young journalist named Rachel who was raised by a single mom who refused to tell her anything about her father. After her mother is killed in an accident, Rachel tries to discover her dad’s identity. She kinda-sorta solves the mystery. Then she travels to Haiti on assignment for the TV station she works for, where she has an on-air meltdown which basically destroys her career, as well as her marriage to an idealistic striver.

Then, about a third of the way through the book, she reconnects by chance with Brian, a private eye who had tried to help find her dad. She happens to run into him in a bar after six months of self-imposed isolation, as she’s heading home from her divorce hearing. They hit it off, and he helps her recover from her agoraphobia and panic attacks. Then, at just about the halfway point, the plot suddenly goes bananas and turns into a high-octane thriller. Apparently, Lehane sold the book to Hollywood a couple years before publication; my guess is that when it becomes a film, the first 50% will be dispensed with in 15 minutes. Heck, maybe even before the opening credits roll.

I don’t want to get into any details of what happens in part two because I usually consider anything that far into the book spoiler territory, but there was just something so disjointed about the way the two halves are fused together. Why include so much about the mysterious missing dad when that storyline had almost zero relevance to the plot that followed? Couldn’t Rachel and Brian have met some other way? (We find out fairly early on that his career as a private eye was short-lived, so his onetime occupation isn’t relevant, either.) Even for a thriller, the second half of Since We Fell requires too much suspension of disbelief. On the plus side, maybe this will turn into that rare book that works better as a film than on the printed page.