The Fall Guy

9780393292329_198   James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a psychological thriller with the same eerie flavor as Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.  With astute observations of those around him,  Lasdun’s unreliable narrator is as literate as he is lethal and downright creepy.

When Matthew, an out of work chef, accepts an invitation from his wealthy cousin Charlie, a recently dismissed hedge fund manager, to spend the summer at his luxurious mountainside retreat, their cohabitation seems relatively peaceful at first.  Matthew occupies the guest house and cooks the meals, while Charlie and his wife, Chloe, while away the days swimming, reading, and practicing yoga. Their conversations are friendly yet reserved, with an underlying vein of Matthew’s unrequited love for his cousin’s wife and his jealousy of Charlie’s success. Charlie is overbearing and entitled (he has a million and a half dollars in cash in his home safe), while he vacillates between being the gracious savior of Matthew’s moneyless circumstances and acting as the overlord expecting undue fealty for his benevolence.

As the story slowly unveils secrets in the characters’ past, Lasdun’s descriptions of Matthew’s gourmet meals are mouth-watering, with exquisite attention to detail.  This detail continues with Chloe’s project of photographing county mailboxes and creating gardens around the house, lulling the reader into thinking nothing bad will happen after all.  Matthew’s private rants about his bad luck growing up without a father who disappeared after making bad investments, his private schooling abruptly interrupted by being caught dealing drugs, and his unsuccessful forays into the restaurant business, all seem innocuous – the quiet despair of a depressed person, not the festering revenge of a psychopath.

When Matthew decides to secretly follow Chloe on one of her photographing expeditions, and discovers she is having a secret affair with another man, the narrative quickly turns into a Hitchcockian drama. To reveal too much would spoil the plot; Lasdun uses clever twists and red herrings to draw the reader into the maze of deception, revealing more past history as possible motives for the characters’ actions.  The denouement is unexpected – I backtracked to reread pages, thinking I must have missed something because the sudden change in the action took me by surprise – not at all what I had been led to expect.  The ending is a little rattling, but the murderer (did I tell you there’s a murder?) is caught.

Lasdun includes a few phrases worth remembering. One easy to apply to the next person you meet who is pretentiously cheerful –

…”a hypocrite in whom dissembling graciousness had become habit…”

I read the book from the library, but I couldn’t help thinking how well the book would play on Audible with Matthew’s British accent.  The beginning is a little slow, but once the action starts, it would be hard to fall asleep listening.

 

 

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Cocoa Beach

Unknown   Despite Beatriz Williams’ complicated plots with murder, deceit, and harrowing escapes, she always delivers a happy ending, and Cocoa Beach is no exception.  With American volunteers in London during World War I, wealthy aristocrats in Cornwall, and rumrunners at a posh plantation in Florida during the Prohibition, the varied settings add to the historical context of a fast-paced melodrama of romance and intrigue.

Virginia Fortesque, young American volunteer ambulance driver, meets Simon Fitzwilliam, the tall dashing British doctor, and, of course, they fall in love as she drives him across the battlefields.  Their lives are complicated by their families.  She has a wealthy father who has been imprisoned for murdering her mother; he has a wife and son, with a huge debt attached to the ancestral home.

When the war ends, he divorces his wife, marries Virginia, and leaves to make his fortune at the downtrodden family investment in Cocoa Beach, Florida, while she returns to her family in New York.  When he dies suddenly, she and their two year old daughter travel to Florida to settle the estate.  And so the real story begins.

Williams cleverly changes tacks frequently, as she alternates between the war years and the present in 1922.  No one is who they seem, and the intrigue hardens into murder for greed, with lies about everything.  The reader is never sure who is telling the truth until the end.

Virginia remains the only character who is decent and true, the victim of the villains surrounding her.  If you read Williams’ A Certain Age, you may remember her as a minor character whose father is accused of killing his wife, Virginia’s mother.  Williams fleshes out her story in Cocoa Beach, with her usual successful combination of romance, mystery and murder, adding a dash of prohibition and infidelity, and the compelling formula of distracting foils and dangerous tension.

Fun and compelling – Cocoa Beach is a great beach read.

Review: A Certain Age

Idaho

9780812994049_p0_v4_s192x300   Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is a shattering and thought-provoking story, centered on a complicated collection of characters, connected by a mother’s murder of her own child.  Reading to discover the motive brings no satisfaction; Ruskovich is more interested in the inner workings of each mind, not just the killer.  Learning of Rustovich’s O’Henry award prompted me to read Idaho, but no surprise ending here.  The story weaves in and out of lives, backtracking, going into the future, dwelling on the present.  At times, the circular pattern is hard to follow as each character is slowly revealed.

The cast of characters meander in and out of the story, with flashbacks to the central focus, the murder of six year old May and her older sister June’s running away from the scene – never to be found. Later in the story, artist’s renderings of June’s appearance as she might be at different ages adds to the strangeness.

Jennie pleads guilty to cutting off May’s head with a hatchet while May sang in the back seat of their truck.  She begs for a death sentence, but is sent away to prison for life.  There she meets Elizabeth, a younger woman who has murdered her boyfriend and the neighbor who witnessed it.  Jennie attends poetry classes and takes notes for Elizabeth, who has been banned from class for her attack against another inmate.

May’s father, Wade, has inherited his family’s penchant for early onset dementia – all males seem to succumb in their fifties.  Ann, a music teacher at the local school, gives Wade piano lessons – his effort to focus his mind to strengthen his oncoming memory loss.  Before too long, Ann offers to marry Wade to care for him as he declines.

Almost as an aside, Elliot, an older boy with one leg from a horrible accident at the school, has the attention of both Ann and June, who has a secret crush. Rustovich connects his life as a tangent to the main action – another lesson in life’s struggles.

Are you keeping up?  Amazingly, Rustovich intertwines the lives of all the characters, although not until the end does her clever weaving become apparent.  The murder may be the focus but it is not the point.  Jennie’s sudden act may have been a moment of anger, but more likely an unthinking inexplainable move of frustration in the moment.  The author never really worries about the horrible act; the murder just makes no sense.

“Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention. No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.”

As Ann continues to discover more about the murder before Wade loses all memory, her pursuit of the truth seems to be a race with his decline.  Ultimately, he loses all memory and she is left with only Jennie as her source of information.  In the end, Ann creates a new life for the now elderly Jennie, and when the two wives eventually meet, it is not as dramatic as expected.

Their lives go on, despite the horrors – as does all life.  Maybe that was the point the author wanted to make.  The book is difficult to read, but full of thoughtful diversions leading back to how people cope.

 

 

 

River Road by Carol Goodman

9781501109904_p0_v2_s192x300   Carol Goodman’s mysteries cannot come fast enough for me, and her latest – River Road – has all the plot twists and Gothic flavor of her earlier books – The Seduction of Water and The Lake of Dead Languages.  Goodman once again mixes grief and revenge with office politics and murder.  Her mystery thriller brought back memories of the politics and secrets of academia, most notably the English department.

Nan Lewis, an English professor up for tenure at a state college in upstate New York, hits a deer on her way home from the department Christmas party.  The next day, Nan learns from the police that her favorite student, Leia Dawson, has been killed the night before on that same road.  The site is the same bend in the road where, years earlier, Nan’s 4-year-old daughter, Emmy, had been killed by a hit-and-run driver. Nan becomes the main suspect in the death of her student, but the investigation quickly spreads to include students and other professors in a tale full of unreliable narrators and red herrings.

As mysterious clues appear linking her daughter’s and her student’s death, a handsome police chief comes to Nan’s rescue more than once – adding an inevitable romantic storyline to the fast-paced killer pursuit.  The unforgiving cold weather adds to the drama, as well as Nan’s guilt over her daughter’s death.

A quick and satisfying read, River Road joins Goodman’s prolific output of books with murder, ghosts, and secrets.

Related ReviewArcadia Falls

The Woman in Cabin 10

9781501132933_p0_v3_s192x300   Sometimes a scary novel is a welcome alternative to reality, and Ruth Ware has the right formula in The Woman in Cabin 10.  On the eve of the big political debate in the United States, with the two prospective Presidents ready to attack each other on live television, I found myself avoiding the front pages and the review sections of the New York Times, glancing at the arts section and opting instead to read Ware’s book – on the bestseller list now for weeks.   Starting slowly with a burglary and escalating quickly into a mystery thriller on an elite ocean liner, The Woman in Cabin 10 successfully delivered me from real political moments to a solvable mystery.

Although the narrator, journalist Lo Blacklock, fits the role of unreliable narrator with her alcoholic stupors, panic attacks, antidepressants, and general wide-eyed fawn caught in the headlights persona, the author’s description of the setting makes Blacklock’s accusations seem plausible.  You almost expect a dead body to come floating up from the depths of the ocean.

“When I got to the door that opened to the deck, a wall of gray greeted me behind the glass, blanketing the ship in its folds so you could barely see from one end of the deck to the other, giving a strange, muffled feeling.  The mist had brought a chill to the air, fogging the hairs on my arms with drizzle, and as I stood uncertainly in the lee of the doorway, shivering and trying to get my bearings, I heard the long, mournful boom of a fog horn.”

Blacklock is convinced a woman has been thrown overboard on her first night at sea, and suspects passengers, including her ex-boyfriend, as well as the crew.  Her story seems to be the traumatic aftereffect of the burglary in her apartment the night before she sailed; no one is missing on the ship, and clues that appear only to Blacklock could be dismissed as her imagination or hysteria.  Was there ever a woman in Cabin 10?

To add to the confusion, Ware inserts missives projecting forward to the end of the cruise, but in the middle of the action and as Blacklock continues with her narrative – news, after the cruise has docked, proclaiming the disappearance of Blacklock from the ship and the finding of a dead woman’s body washed ashore.  The reader knows Blacklock is still alive because her narrative continues and the next shock will give you Vertigo.  No spoilers here but let me know if you get my reference after you read the book.

In a combination of Agatha Christie and O’Henry, Ware manages to tie up all the loose threads at the end of the book and provide a surprise ending.  A great read – fast and furious, I read it in a sitting – thankfully, not before I went to bed.

As for the great debate tomorrow, now I know it can’t be as scary nor as satisfying as Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10.

Related Review:  In a Dark Dark Wood