Into the Woods with Ruth Ware

As a crime fiction reviewer, I’ve often had to say, “Sorry, I haven’t read it” when people ask me about a new book.  The reasons can vary.  I might be swamped with review copies.  I might not have been in the mood for that particular book after sampling it.  Or I might be wary of the publicity blitz around the book since I’ve seen so many crime novels over-hyped by publishers and been disappointed when they turn out clichéd or badly written.

But then it’s a wonderful surprise to pick up a book with thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and discover that it truly lives up to the promotional material.  This past week I finally caught up with Ruth Ware’s gripping debut In a Dark, Dark Wood.

After an enigmatic brief prologue, the book opens in a hospital with Leonora, a heroine who can’t remember how she got there but has hands sticky with blood.  Something horrible has clearly happened.  Is she a murderer?  She’s desperate to regain her memory and for much of the book that struggle is a dark, dark thread.

How did she end up in the hospital?  Well, because she should have said no to a bizarre invitation.  Leonora, a crime writer herself, has led a solitary life for a decade after university for undisclosed reasons but readers know they’ll find out and will surely hope there’s high drama involved.  The invitation breaks into her solitude: it’s for what the English call “a hen party” and Americans call a bachelorette party.  Weirdly, she hasn’t been invited to the wedding itself and it takes some coaxing from a friend of hers and the bride’s to say “yes.”

The party is hours from London, very remote, in a big, isolated, ugly ultra-modern house.  Though it’s not haunted, it has far too many large, un-curtained windows and is surrounded by bleak forest.  Everything about it is oppressive, creepy, and exposed.  Tensions soon rise among the motley group of partiers and what seems at first to be an Agatha Christie homage turns violent and bloody.

In the second half of the novel we learn what drove her and her bride-to-be friend apart and while some of the revelations aren’t as surprising as you might wish, they fall into place with a satisfying way.  Ware is deft at building tension, evocatively describing people and places, and the book is explosive in many ways.  It’s also intriguing to read about a crime novelist caught up in a series of mysteries, a woman who might be a murderer herself.  And a woman who by all rights should have been far more wary and suspicious from the start.  When you read a Christie novel, a great deal is revealed in dialogue and readers of this novel should pay close attention to what characters say if they want to figure out what’s really going on in this taut, enticing novel.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and public radio stations.  He’s the author of ten Nick Hoffman mysteries.

𝘿𝙖𝙧𝙠 𝙊𝙗𝙟𝙚𝙘𝙩𝙨 is a Solid Police Procedural

Soon after a body is found at a bizarre and brutal murder scene in London, we discover what the title of this police procedural refers to.  The dark objects are the “overturned and sometimes overlooked” things at a murder that may explain what happened.

However, one of the objects laid out in ritual fashion near the victim is anything but overlooked.  In fact, it’s a blaring message.  This object is a book about how to “read” murder scenes, written by Laughton Rees, the police commissioner’s long-estranged daughter.  Rees is a criminologist with “almost preternatural abilities to observe, process, and recall information.” In her university lectures, she only uses cold cases or solved cases, but she’s pulled into investigating this murder case at an ultra-chic, multi-million-pound home because of that book.

The discovery of her book opens up a whirlpool of grief and misery because years ago, her father led a high-profile investigation whose suspect ended up killing her mother.  And she saw it happen.  Rees blames her father, rejected all his offers of connection and has become obsessive compulsive to cope with her trauma.  She’s a deeply sympathetic character because it seems that her dark past “always catches up with her and swallows her whole, no matter how fast or how fast or how far she runs from it.”

Rees’s “partner” in the investigation is the resonantly-named inspector Tannahill Khan, but he’s not nearly as interesting as her or the sleazy reporter, Brian Slade, who will do anything to get a story with long legs into the tabloid he writes for.

The book’s strength is the detailed and fascinating police work and the focus on Rees’s suffering and attempts to stay stable, though a few things get in the way, including the slow pace.

It seems obligatory these days that any major figure in a mystery or TV crime series is the parent of a troubled teenager and Dark Objects checks off that box in spades. 

The writing could also have been more polished to avoid various kinds of repetition and lines like this one: “Tannahill watches, his brain trying to catch up with what just happened.” Then there’s the awkward and unattractive mix of fonts and spacing at various points. 

None of that truly damages the book and the fault lies with the editing and design, not the author.  A bigger issue is the trick ending with a wildly unbelievable confession. 

All the same, filled with biting social commentary, Dark Objects has enough for police procedural fans to enjoy on a few hot summer nights.

Lev Raphael was the long-time crime fiction reviewer for The Detroit Free Press and is the author of ten crime novels.

How Dumb Can a Thriller Character Be?

Picture yourself after being hit by a car.  You wake up in a hospital bruised and battered, with big gaps in your memory. Your foot is damaged and you can’t walk without assistance when you’re released because it’s painful and difficult.

So when the husband you don’t remember brings you home to the enormous house you don’t remember, and says that you can sleep in the guestroom on the first floor, you of course insist on sleeping in your bedroom up a double flight of stairs, right?  You obviously need the challenge, and you “don’t want to be any trouble.”

That’s the case even though you don’t know your way around, you don’t have crutches (standard issue in a situation like this), but you did get a measly little cane which barely supports you when you try to walk and which you keep dropping.

You haven’t made any attempt to contact your friends at work or any other friends while you’ve been in the hospital, and even though you can’t seem to get internet service at home, you don’t really question your husband about these missing colleagues and friends.  You just let it slide.

Trying to jog your memory, you study a photo album where you notice that the hair on the back of your husband’s head in a mirror is a different color than the rest of his hair. Of course you’re only mildly puzzled since you’ve never heard of Photoshop.

When you finally discover that your husband isn’t who he claims to be, you crisscross the extravagant kitchen multiple times in your attempts to escape (and make a phone call) and while doing so, you avoid picking up anything that could be a weapon. You just hobble back and forth and don’t bother grabbing a knife, a weighty meat tenderizer, a pot or a pan.

Why? Because you’re an idiot. Because you’re a heroine in a film that gives “femjep” a bad name.

You’re not the only idiot on screen. The detective who figures out that there’s something fishy about your husband comes to your house alone. No call for backup. An ex-cop I interviewed for my latest mystery recently told me that this is one of the most frustrating things he sees on TV and in films: cops going cowboy. “It doesn’t happen,” he said.

But it has to happen in films written by people who think the audience is too dumb to know better.

Secret Obsession is only about ninety minutes long, but it’s a black hole of stupidity. There’s a pretty house to ogle and the leads have nice hair, but that’s about the best it can offer.  Don’t waste your time, unless you enjoy yelling at characters who just can’t seem to do anything right.

Lev Raphael is the author of State University of Murder and two dozen other books in many genres. He offers creative writing workshops, editing, and mentoring online at writewithoutorders.com.

Rachel Caine’s “Stillhouse Lake” is a Perfect Thriller!

I’ve been reviewing mysteries and thrillers since the 90s and it’s been a very long time since I got goosebumps reading a crime novel.  And even longer since I felt torn between rushing ahead to find out what was going to happen next and slowing down to savor and marvel at what an amazing book I was reading.

Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake is that book.  It’s beautifully crafted, scary and terrific in every single way: plot, characterization, style, and pacing. Hell, even the cover is creepily perfect.

Caine’s hypnotic narrator is Gwen Proctor, a woman on the run ever since her husband’s horrific secret life was exposed and led him to prison. She’s trying to protect herself and her kids from the sociopaths on the Internet who blame her for her husband’s crimes and make obscene, horrific threats. As happens way too often now, hatred’s gone viral and she’s the target of a vicious, disgusting cyber mob.

Despite the despair she sometimes feels, she’s strong, resourceful, and a very good shot. She’s turned herself into a fierce and indefatigable woman who might remind you of Sarah Connor in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

Gwen needs to be quick-thinking and strong because she’s pursued by psycho cyber terrorists. She and her kids keep having to abandon one town after another, one identity after another, until perhaps, just perhaps they’ve found a new home with people they can trust and maybe even admire.

Well, you know how long that’s going to last….

Caine avoids a trap many thriller writers fall into: her action scenes are as clear as possible without an excess word, and you always know exactly what’s happening.  Equally important, she’s also a deft psychologist, capturing every single nuance of Gwen’s struggle in lean, evocative prose. Gwen’s love for her children is so intense the book practically blazes with that love.  Her torment is just as intense.  How could she have been so naive as to marry a man who was a heinous criminal–and not figured him out?  The shame, the guilt, it’s all there, dramatized and heightened as one great plot twist follows another.

I actually read the prologue and first chapter twice because I was so blown away by the power and intensity of what Kaine was doing, and by the plight of a deeply sympathetic narrator whose life may never be restored to any semblance of normality.

I’ll say it again: this is a perfect thriller.  So prepare for plenty of OMG moments, and for losing lots of sleep.

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.