“The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

The Death of Mrs. WestawayRuth Ware’s fourth novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, seems to draw a lot of its inspiration from Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. There’s a Cornish mansion, a sinister housekeeper, secrets galore, and a young heroine who has no idea what lies ahead of her when she arrives at the stately home.

Hal (née Harriet) Westaway is dead broke—in fact, she’s in debt to a loan shark—when she receives a letter from an attorney informing her that her grandmother has died and Hal is a beneficiary of her will. This comes as something of a shock, since the parents of her late single mother Margarida Westaway, are both dead. Hal figures it has to be a mistake, but perhaps all she needs to do is show up for the funeral and reading of the will, and if she’s lucky, she’ll inherit enough money to make her problems go away. So she takes the train down to Penzance and finds herself at Trepassen House, a crumbling, ivy-covered estate. The housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, is decidedly unfriendly, putting Hal up in a freezing attic room with a barred window and locks on the outside of the door.

Eventually, Hal meets the late Mrs. Westaway’s offspring and their respective families, who don’t exactly give her a warm welcome either. Somehow, she needs to figure out a way to trick them all into believing that she is the daughter of their long-lost sister Maud, who disappeared without a trace many years ago, without seeming like so much of a threat that somebody will be tempted to kill her in order to keep all those secrets intact.

Hal is a clever and resourceful heroine and I found the book to be great fun, if a bit portentous at times. (“There was a sudden spatter of fresh rain against the glass, and she thought she heard—though perhaps it was her fancy—the far-off sound of waves against a shore. An image came into Hal’s mind—of rising waters, closing above all of their heads, while Mrs. Westaway laughed from beyond the grave…”) But for those of us who enjoy this gloriously Gothic type of novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway offers solid summertime entertainment.

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“The Boy at the Door” by Alex Dahl

The Boy at the DoorI’m attending the CrimeFest conference this weekend, and while there are plenty of authors here with whom I’m already familiar—Lee Child, Simon Brett, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Peter James, etc.—I wanted to check out some of the new writers. Alex Dahl’s debut thriller is set in Norway, and I’m always interested in the latest in Scandinavian crime fiction. Unlike a lot of the Scandi-noir titles that make it to the U.S., this one isn’t a bestseller in its homeland that’s just been translated; Dahl was raised in Oslo but she’s half-American, so she wrote this book in English.

I’m on the record as being a fan of books with complicated, even frankly unlikable narrators, so I was immediately captivated by Cecilia Wilborg, who is… well, at best, a narcissist, and at worst, a sociopath. Cecilia lives in the town of Sandefjord, which she describes as “a wealthy town full of spoiled, bored wives.” She works as an interior decorator, and the money she earns helps keep her in cashmere Missoni throws and designer dresses. Her husband is a successful businessman, and they have two beautiful daughters.

“All I ever wanted was a normal family, the kind of family others may look to for inspiration. Does that make me bad?” muses Cecilia. “I’ve worked hard at being the perfect wife and the perfect mother.”

When something comes along to threaten that perfection, Cecilia is forced to make some difficult decisions. A small, olive-skinned boy named Tobias is found alone at the local swimming center, and Cecilia, who is there with her own children, is persuaded to take him in for a few days while the authorities search for his parents. She is furious at the inconvenience, but relents. Soon, she discovers that Tobias has a connection to a drug user named Anni—a woman who knows some shocking secrets that Cecilia has tried very hard to hide.

Dahl is wise enough to realize that a whole book of self-absorbed Cecilia would be rather hard to take, so the author intersperses chapters told from Cecilia’s point of view with Tobias’s backstory and excerpts from Anni’s diaries and letters. As Cecilia’s carefully constructed web of lies begins to fall apart, the question becomes whether she’ll be able to outrun her past, or if her misdeeds will finally be exposed.

The Boy at the Door is a genuine page-turner, a fascinating psychological study and a must-read for people who can’t resist twisty thrillers with unreliable narrators. It’s already available as an ebook from the U.K. publisher Head of Zeus; it’ll be out in the U.S. in July.

“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.

“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.