The Cage by Bonnie Kistler

Cover from US edition (2022) of The Cage by Bonnie Kistler

Originally published in 2022

On a cold, misty Sunday night, two women are alone in the offices of fashion conglomerate Claudine de Martineau International. One is the company’s human resources director. Impeccably dressed and perfectly coiffed, she sits at her desk and stares somberly out the window. Down the hall, her colleague, one of the company’s lawyers, is buried under a pile of paperwork, frantically rushing to finish. 

Leaving at the same time, the two women, each preoccupied by her own thoughts, enter the elevator that will take them down from the 30th floor.

When they arrive at the lobby, one of the women is dead. Was it murder or suicide?

Cover and blurb from Harper (US) edition published 2022

I have been eagerly awaiting the publication of The Cage since I first read the plot synopsis a few months ago. I was immediately grabbed by the boldness of its central idea – that two women enter an elevator and that when it completes its descent one of the two is dead. This is about as extreme a closed circle murder as I can think of and I was really curious to see where Kistler took the story from there.

Perhaps the first thing to note about the book is that while there are things to deduce (some of which are clued and foreshadowed very effectively), this book is first and foremost a legal thriller in the vein of Grisham’s The Firm or the TV series Damages. The book certainly concerns the investigation into that death in the elevator and the question of whether Lucy Barton-Jones committed suicide or Shay Lambert shot her but once we are past the opening chapters the story style transforms into something a little different.

Kistler divides the story into chapters narrated by Shay recounting her story and third person chapters written from the perspective of one of the senior executives at Claudine de Martineau International (CDMI). These figures soon become oppositional to one another, each presenting a different story about what happened that night. In theory this approach should present the reader with a binary choice between the two different stories and yet, while neither side tells the whole truth, the reader will likely quickly establish who the villain will be.

Rather than focus on the guessing game of who to believe, instead the reader is drawn into the game of seeing how each side will try to convince the police investigators of their case. It is here that I think the decision to provide us with a first person account for Shay really works as we share in her sense of disorientation as pieces of unhelpful information are presented to the police. It is less a matter of whether we think she is innocent as how she will be able to convince the investigators of her arguments.

The true focus of the book is not whether Shay is innocent but on the question of why the executives at CDMI would want her to be arrested for the murder. It’s an intriguing problem and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Kistler clues the answer to this quite well, providing the reader with lots of small hints to piece together.

I found the first half of the book as we wrestle with that question to be really engaging. For instance I think Kistler uses flashback very effectively, dropping hints about an event in the past but making us wait to go back and show us what occurred. These small reveals are spaced out well with each chapter seeming to turn up some new idea or information that helps us better understand Shay and the situation she has found herself in.

The reader will have most of the answers to what happened by the midpoint of the novel at which point the thriller aspects of the story are amplified. In this latter half of the novel Shay finds herself in danger and has to use her brain and legal skills to work out what is going on and to turn the situation around. This material is also quite entertaining and engaging, especially as we near the end and some of the plot threads start to get wrapped up.

The acceleration of the storytelling though does coincide with a slight distancing between Shay and the reader. While we still observe her actions in these chapters, there is less dwelling on the reasons or meaning behind them. One consequence of this is that I became a little less emotionally involved with her fate in that second half of the story. Another is that I felt that the second half of the book lacked a central question that tied everything together and provide the same sort of focus as the police investigation had done in the first.

The other problem is that I felt the antagonist was not a particularly striking character. While they are clearly monstrous, the book never quite delves deeply enough into the question of how they justify their actions. Nor do they share many scenes with Shay, giving little opportunity for the sort of conflict that helps sharpen the presentation of their character. That seems a shame to me as I think a stronger antagonist could have provided some of the focus that I felt the plot needed towards the end.

The Verdict: This entertaining corporate legal thriller is good fun in the best traditions of early Grisham. Do not come to this expecting a mystery novel (particularly a locked room puzzle) and you won’t be disappointed.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Originally published in 2020

On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed.

But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast.

And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

My Thoughts

The Guest List takes place on a remote but picturesque island off the coast of Ireland. The site is the location of the high profile wedding of trendy digital magazine publisher Jules Keegan and reality TV star Will Slater. The picture perfect couple seem to have arranged the best of everything and have gathered with friends and family to share their special day together. As the wedding approaches and the partying begins, secrets are revealed and resentments grow within the group. When a storm briefly knocks out the power a murder takes place but who is the killer and, equally importantly, who is the victim?

Foley employs a complex structure that mixes chapters set in the run up to that moment told from the viewpoints of several members of the wedding party (the wedding planner, the bride, the plus one, the bridesmaid and the best man) with chapters set in the present told in the third person. While this makes for a rather disorientating start to the novel, the benefits of that structure soon become clear.

The first of these is that Foley grants the reader clues as to where the story might be headed. There are a number of moments where we are given a glimpse of some item or a reference to something that will happen. This encourages the reader to compare past and present, notice the differences and question how the situation may have changed so rapidly.

The main advantage of this choice though is that Foley is able to manufacture several big revelations in the space of a few chapters towards the end as everything is brought together. The narrators in those first-person chapters do not always share everything they know and in a few cases, they simply lack the knowledge to tell us everything at that point in the story. Several characters have been keeping their secrets for a while and only share them in reaction to external events.

Foley is also careful to be extremely sparing in the details she shows us of the murder. We are given enough to convey an impression of what is going on – the story, the blood and the chaotic search for some missing people – but those images lack context. The reader will have to wait until past and present collide to have a full understanding of what has happened. That relates not only to the identity of the murderer but also their victim.

It is very hard to pace a story so that such an important detail as the identity of the victim is withheld until the end. It is an approach that could easily read as gimmicky. Foley manages to craft a situation however where there are multiple credible suspects no matter the identity of the victim.

One other thing I want to praise with regards the structure is the choice to use multiple narrators. This not only works very well for exploring different functions of that job, it also allows Foley to suggest something to us that one of his other narrators may be unaware of. The narrators make for an interesting mix of types which I will come onto in a moment and also make this a story that feels particularly suited for the audiobook format (each narrator has their own reader).

The other thing I really like about the way that the multiple narrator thing is realized here is that each chapter heading not only reminds us who the narrator is and when it is taking place, it also spells out their role within the party. I loved this as an approach, particularly when dealing with those early chapters where we were getting to know everyone.

Turning to the thematic content of the book, I think Foley does a fine job of exploring the idea that ‘boys will be boys’ and some of the mindset of wealth and priviledge and culture often found in British public schools. These themes also can be seen reflected in the very different backgrounds and personalities of the various narrators. References to the like of Lord of the Flies are dropped in, providing a little context and encouraging comparison. It’s not a very pretty sight…

Foley paces the various revelations that are made exceptionally well, creating a sense of growing tension as we prepare for the storm to hit and those lights to go out. There is a sense in those middle chapters that there is always some new information being discovered and because of the use of those first person perspectives, we have a strong sense of how those revelations are affecting each member of the wedding party.

Individually those stories are very powerful and thematically I think they fit well alongside each other but the reader will have to accept a significant amount of coincidence in how this situation is set up. I think, reflecting on the individual characters, that their choices are all credible and I could understand, given their personalities, why they didn’t always talk to each other or ask challenging questions.

There is one character however who lies at the intersection of these story threads that I think becomes harder to understand as we learn more about what has happened. I felt that the explanation of their backstory is, in contrast to many of the other characters, very simplistic. I suspect that is a feature, rather than a fault, of the novel – that our focus is meant to be on the affected rather than the perpetrator. I would not argue with anyone who feels that this important character feels a little two dimensional.

The point at which the individual narratives catch up to the action in the present is really powerful and sets up a really gripping conclusion. It is not an ending that really surprised me – I think Foley sets her story threads up well enough that by the point you reach that conclusion it will feel like the only fitting resolution – but the execution is very good and I have to say there is an aspect of the resolution that I really enjoyed.

The Verdict:

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Guest List. It is a cleverly constructed thriller that executes its ideas and discusses its chosen themes well. For those who enjoy audio, I can strongly recommend the excellent audiobook.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner

Cover for The Case of the Caretaker's Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner

Originally published in 1935
Perry Mason #7
Preceded by The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
Followed by The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece

WHEN THE CAT’S AWAY THE MURDERER WILL PLAY…. 

In his will, Peter Laxter guaranteed his faithful caretaker a job and a place to live… for life. But Laxter’s grandson Sam says the deal doesn’t include the caretaker’s cat—and he wants the feline off the premises by hook, crook… or poison. When Perry Mason takes the case, he quickly finds there’s much more at stake than an old man’s cat—a million dollars or more to be exact…

My Thoughts

Last week I found myself picking up my first Perry Mason novel in quite some time. The break was unplanned and reflects more on my desire to discover new authors and characters but every now and again it’s nice to pick up a book and be sure you are going to have a great time with it.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is fun from the very start. It opens with Perry agreeing to meet with an elderly man who has been sat waiting in his office on several occasions, insisting he needs to speak with Mason. He explains that his employer recently died and the terms of his will guaranteed the caretaker a job while he was able to work and a place to live once he retired. The employer’s grandson however has insisted that the provisions of the will did not extend to the caretaker’s cat and has vowed to kill it if he does not dispose of it.

Perry, sympathizing with the caretaker’s desire to be able to live with his feline companion, agrees to write a letter that he hopes will scare the grandson off. In it he brazenly suggests that any move against the cat would risk putting the man’s own inheritance in danger. He expects that to be an end to the matter and so he is surprised when the grandson and his lawyer turn up in his office in an argumentative mood. Before long Mason finds himself dug into his position and, ever keen to protect the interests of his client, he starts to dig into the circumstances of Peter Laxter’s death, soon turning up evidence of murder…

One of the most entertaining things about this book is the idea that a massive criminal case will emerge out of what is a pretty inconsequential dispute. While the nature of that dispute is, as is often the case with these stories, quirky and colorful, Gardner quickly and convincingly escalates that situation while never losing sight of the amusing idea that Perry has a cat for a client in this story.

This entry in the series also continues to explore the idea that Perry at this stage in his career is a scrapper by nature. When challenged as he is from an early point in this story, he chooses to act forcefully and often acts to provoke his opponents.

Perry could so easily be an obnoxious character. That confidence, so often manifesting itself in lengthy speeches to Della or Paul in which he talks passionately about what it means to be a lawyer, could read as smug and obnoxious were it not for the idea that he is championing the downtrodden and providing access to the protection offered by the law to all regardless of their wealth or station. That is shown here by his willingness to put himself to a great amount of inconvenience for what amounts to a $10 fee.

Gardner had packed his previous Mason novels with plenty of exciting and surprising developments but, compared to those, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat seems all the more densely plotted. Each chapter seems to bring at least one new revelation or idea that changes your understanding of what has happened or what may happen in the future. Many of these are excellent and well-clued but there is a lot of detail about characters’ movements to absorb, some of which feels a little unnecessary.

Fortunately the concept of the crime is much more interesting and novel with the murderer employing a rather creative means to dispatch Peter Laxter. Readers should not expect Perry to deduce that method for himself – it is handed to him directly early in the book – but it is interesting to follow how he interprets and responds to that information. The alert reader may well detect other clues to what exactly is going on in interactions with those other suspects.

The issue is not the book’s ingenuity but rather that it can feel a little too clever and as if it is trying to do a little too much. Further murders follow but because they occur in such quick succession, not all of them left a big impact on me. In fact there was one point where I had to reread a section when I had forgotten that a character had died – it was not that the writing was unclear but simply that it was followed so quickly by another very dramatic moment.

Were this intended to be a fair play detection story, I might perhaps have felt frustrated by the complexity of the plotting. Read as a thriller however it makes for page-turning stuff. I loved the process of uncovering the truth behind the characters’ movements and the connections between the various elements of the plot. Yes, some parts of the plot are quite incredible but they are also highly entertaining.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is unlikely to be in contention for Perry’s greatest case but it may be one of the most entertaining. From its rather amusing concept of Perry representing an animal client to some of the unexpected developments that complicate the case, the book is enormously entertaining and has some wonderfully colorful moments.

The Verdict:

Is this Perry’s quirkiest client? It certainly seems that way to me. Boasting a strong case with a clever resolution, this was a real page turner.

Odor of Violets by Baynard Kendrick

Cover: Penzler Publishing – American Mystery Classics Reprint (2021)

Originally published in 1940
Detective Maclain #3
Preceded by The Whistling Hangman
Followed by Blind Man’s Bluff

Meet Captain Duncan Maclain. Blinded during his service in the first World War, Maclain made up for his lack of vision by sharpening his other senses, achieving a mastery of the subtle unseen clues often missed by those who see only with their eyes. Aided by his dogs Schnucke and Driest, the Captain puts the intelligence-gathering techniques he learned in the Army to work, making a name for himself as New York City’s most sought-after private detective. Now it’s 1940, there’s a second World War breaking out, and Maclain is pulled into a case unlike any he’s investigated before. 

The murder of an actor in his Greenwich Village apartment would cause a stir no matter the circumstances but, when the actor happens to possess secret government plans, and when those plans go missing along with the young woman with whom he was last seen, it’s sensational enough to interest not only the local police, but the American government as well. 

Maclain suspects a German spy plot at work and, in a world where treasonous men and patriots are indistinguishable to the naked eye, it will take his special skills to sniff out the solution.

My Thoughts

For much of this week the fates seemed to be conspiring to keep me from reading my book club’s latest selection, Odor of Violets. At the start of the week I began reading a copy on my lunch break at work, only to get thrown a curveball when a COVID-quarantining situation left me unable to retrieve it, forcing me to order a second print copy. Which got delayed. Or lost. So with twenty-four hours to go, I had to switch things up, shift to a digital edition and force myself to read it in one sitting.

I mention the background to how I came to read this because I want to acknowledge that I didn’t read this in ideal circumstances and I think it is possible that my reading, particularly my ability to focus, may have been affected. Certainly the plotting was the part of the novel I seemed to absorb the least although it had been much of the draw for me when this book was selected. Whether that reflects on the complexity of the plotting or my own inattention, I cannot say.

Odor of Violets begins by introducing us to Norma Tredwill who has decided she must speak with her ex-husband, the actor Paul Gerente, after beginning to suspect that he may be having an affair with a member of her family. She visits his apartment and is buzzed inside, only to find his dead body lying on the carpet. Someone must have buzzed her inside, but who could that have been and where did they disappear to?

Meanwhile across the city private detective Captain Maclean receives a visit in his office. The visitor, identified as Paul Gerente, has a message from Naval Intelligence seeking Maclean’s assistance in identifying vulnerable points in the city’s defenses. A short while later he visits Gerente’s apartment only to discover another man inside along with the dead body. A man who admits to murdering Gerente…

Odor of Violets, written in 1940, is principally a pulpy, espionage thriller though I was quite pleasantly surprised to realize that it also has elements of the traditional whodunnit. While some developments such as kidnappings and our detective finding themselves in physical peril clearly reflect a pulpy style, there are several occasions where those developments come about because of the detection (or to enable it to occur).

I do really like the conceit of Maclain speaking with a man only to learn that he was already dead. It gets things off to a fun start by introducing the idea of impersonation and also reminding us quite clearly of the wartime backdrop to the story. The success of Maclain’s investigation will, we realize, have a huge impact on national security and it may very well affect America’s contribution to the war. These are pretty compelling stakes and I felt they helped to not only build interest in the detection process but also to introduce a bit of a race against time as we near the end of the story.

As much as I liked this initial hook, I did find the early chapters a little slow and perhaps even a little unfocused. There is a lot going on here and I initially struggled a little with the combination of a domestic and a national security focus, wanting the writer to commit to one or the other. Things pick up considerably with a second murder that uses a pretty novel murder weapon and kick into another gear entirely when, close to the end, a third body turns up in circumstances that are very memorable.

Though I struggled a little to get interested in those early chapters, two things kept me going and engaged with this. The first was that Kendrick’s pulpy writing style is entertaining and ensures that there is plenty of incident to keep the reader engaged. The second, and perhaps more important one, was the character of Maclain himself.

Maclain is a fascinating creation for a number of reasons, not least the depiction of his blindness. While Kendrick’s depiction of sensory compensation can feel a little incredible and overdone, I appreciated firstly that the author attempts to show how a dedicated individual might be able to refine their skills to still make an important contribution – in this case to the war effort.

One of the most striking behaviors Maclain demonstrates seems to be drawn straight from the Sherlock Holmes playbook. On several occasions in the story Maclain draws huge observations about a character based on some small details of their personality or manners. Some of these can be a little fantastical, much like those found in Holmes, but the core idea here is excellent. What’s more, while I think Kendrick uses it a little too often, I think the execution and explanation of those moments is very good.

After a slow start my interest picked up considerably at the time of the second murder and gained still further with the third – which is introduced in quite a wonderfully macabre way. It’s a strong image in a book that’s absolutely packed with them (Kendrick was evidently quite a visual writer) and the moment it is introduced is quite startling. By the end of the book I was quite hooked on the action and keen to see what would happen.

It is, in short, a pretty engaging read – even when I wasn’t always clear exactly what was going on (as a reminder: that may be on me rather than the novel). While I found the direction of the story to be a little unclear at times, I really enjoyed the overall conceit and felt that the idea had been executed very well. Is Maclain a character I would seek out again and again? I am not sure though I will be curious to read any thoughts from others if anyone has any recommendations!

The Verdict:

I struggled to find the thread of the story in the earliest chapter but things picked up for me considerably with the discovery of the secondary murders. Ultimately very solid and readable but the plot itself is less remarkable than its hero.

Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

The Verdict

A very entertaining and surprisingly well-clued mystery marred only by its ridiculously cartoony villain.

Book Details

Originally published in 2019

The Blurb

No visitors. No nights spent elsewhere. No disturbing the rich and famous residents. These are the rules for Jules Larsen’s new job apartment sitting at the Bartholomew, one of Manhattan’s most high-profile buildings. Recently heartbroken—and just plain broke—Jules is taken in by the splendor and accepts the terms, ready to leave her past life behind.
 
As she gets to know the occupants and staff, Jules is drawn to fellow apartment sitter Ingrid, who reminds her so much of the sister she lost eight years ago. When Ingrid confides that the Bartholomew has a dark history hidden beneath its gleaming façade, Jules brushes it off as a harmless ghost story—until the next day when Ingrid seemingly vanishes.
 
Searching for the truth, Jules digs deeper into the Bartholomew’s sordid past. But by uncovering the secrets within its walls, Jules exposes herself to untold terrors. Because once you’re in, the Bartholomew doesn’t want you to leave….

That’s when it hits me: I get to live here. In the goddamn Bartholomew, of all places. In an apartment beyond my wildest dreams.

Even better, I’ll be getting paid to do it.

My Thoughts

Things have not been going well for Jules. After losing her job, her apartment and her boyfriend in a single day, she has been surviving thanks to the generosity of a friend. With just a few hundred dollars left in the bank, she replies to an ad looking for an apartment sitter and is astonished to find that the property is a two-floor luxury apartment at the Bartholomew – a storied property supposed to be the home to some of America’s most famous figures. When she learns that she will be paid $12,000 to live there for three months, it seems too good to be true.

While Jules initially ignores some red flags it soon becomes clear that something weird is going on. Suspicion turns more serious following the disappearance of a fellow resident. Ignoring some pretty clear directives from the property manager, Jules decides to investigate…

The most striking element of the book is its setting, the Bartholomew. Sager does an excellent job of giving us a potted history of this fictional building, explaining its reputation and also the draw it holds for Jules. It is not just a matter of the building’s famous yet secretive clientele or that its exterior had appeared in countless movies but that it was the setting for a book she cherished while growing up – a rags-to-riches story where a girl moves to Manhattan and finds romance and success.

Sager does a good job of setting the scene without falling into the trap of cataloging the furnishings. The few detailed descriptions we get however are both interesting and meaningful. I was particularly drawn to an idea he returns to several times throughout the novel of the wallpaper in a part of the apartment, using it as a metaphor to explore Jules’ changing feelings about the space as we go from fantasy to horror narrative. These touches work nicely, feeding into some broader themes that the novel will develop such as how appearances can be deceptive, and help to make the building itself feel like a character within the novel.

Jules makes for a solid protagonist for this sort of story. Her background of short-term misfortune and a longer-standing sense of loss about the disappearance of her sister years before is arguably a little emotionally manipulative but it works, not only to build empathy with her situation but also to help explain why she overlooks the many red flags thrown up in her interview. Sager doesn’t try to make out that Jules is unaware of these issues – they are directly put to her by her best friend – but she overlooks them because she doesn’t have an alternative. She comes to the Bartholomew out of desperation and a desire to reinvent her life. It may be foolish but I felt that it was quite understandable and it helped me like her.

The novel takes the form of a slow realization and acceptance that something is wrong within the building. This is partly a matter of acknowledging some of those earlier red flags but the unexpected disappearance of Ingrid, another resident, becomes the catalyst for her to start an investigation. It’s an interesting problem and while concern escalates into fear rather quickly, I could understand why the circumstances surrounding that disappearance feel odd enough to prompt that worry.

While the key points of this mystery are clued, I should emphasize that the style does not emphasize deduction or reasoning but rather reads like a suspense story as Jules asks questions, forms alliances and places herself in danger through her prying. There are a few moments where I suspect the reader will be aware that she is making ill-advised choices but that is part of what makes it so compelling.

The secretive nature of the building’s clientele means that we do not spend much time with most of the other residents but there are a few that do stand out. One is the young and handsome Doctor Nick who lives next door and whose advice she seeks as she wants to learn more about the building. That relationship adds an element of flirtation and romance to the novel, though I would suggest that it is not worth reading this novel for that alone.

While several of the other guests and staff make an impression, none do so quite so much as Greta Manville – the author of that book which Jules was obsessed with. Their interactions are initially quite sparky but subsequently seem to grow warmer. It’s an intriguing relationship and I enjoyed trying to work out exactly who Greta was and why she behaves in the rather cold and brusque way she does at the start of the novel.

There are a number of secrets for Jules, and us as readers, to discover and I enjoyed much of the journey, even if it does venture into some pretty wild territory at points. There are certainly some fantastical ideas here but I was struck upon doing some research, that the main ideas hung together reasonably well. In fact, while Jules never really takes us back over the case, upon careful consideration I recognized the points in the novel where the appropriate clues were set up.

That is not to say that everything is resolved. The novel leaves one question unanswered and I am uncertain as to how deliberate that is meant to be. Were we meant to be uncertain or will there be a sequel some day? As far as I can tell this was conceived as a standalone so presumably the question is meant to linger. It’s not particularly satisfying as a narrative technique goes, but I understand what prompted it.

As much as I was entertained by the audacity of the idea here, I do think that the antagonist – once identified to the reader – becomes a rather broad and ‘colorful’ creation which undermines that premise a little. It certainly became hard for me to take that character seriously from that point onwards. Fortunately that coincides with the book taking a heavy shift towards focusing on its plot. And, happily, lie the book’s real strengths…

The Chain by Adrian McKinty

The Verdict

A story of two halves. The first is a tight and propulsive story that will have you asking what you would do in an impossible situation. Sadly the second falls into more standard action thriller territory and left me underwhelmed.

Book Details

Originally published in 2019

The Blurb

It’s something parents do every morning: Rachel Klein drops her daughter at the bus stop and heads into her day. But a cell phone call from an unknown number changes everything: it’s a woman on the line, informing her that she has Kylie bound and gagged in her back seat, and the only way Rachel will see her again is to follow her instructions exactly: pay a ransom, and find another child to abduct. This is no ordinary kidnapping: the caller is a mother herself, whose son has been taken, and if Rachel doesn’t do as she’s told, the boy will die.

“You are not the first. And you will certainly not be the last.” Rachel is now part of The Chain, an unending and ingenious scheme that turns victims into criminals—and is making someone else very rich in the process. The rules are simple, the moral challenges impossible; find the money fast, find your victim, and then commit a horrible act you’d have thought yourself incapable of just twenty-four hours ago.

But what the masterminds behind The Chain know is that parents will do anything for their children. It turns out that kidnapping is only the beginning.

Keep calm. Put this blindfold on. What your mother does in the next twenty-four hours will determine whether you live or die.

My Thoughts

Rachel Klein is driving to a doctor’s appointment when she receives a call from an unknown number. She is told that she will need to pull over and prepare herself for another phone call she should get just a couple of minutes later. There will be instructions to follow and she must not contact the police or any other kind of law enforcement. She is now part of ‘the Chain’.

The next call gives more information. Her teenage daughter Kylie has been kidnapped and the first thing she will need to do is raise money for a ransom. That’s the easy part. The second stage is the hard bit – she will have to carry out her own kidnapping, just as her daughter’s kidnappers have done. Kylie will only be released when her own victim pays the ransom and carries out their own kidnapping.

The Chain is a thriller, through and through. It is an exploration of the terrible things that a parent might feel compelled to do to save their child’s life. I wrote in my review of Brad Park’s Say Nothing (another child kidnapping story) how I felt that having a child made me susceptible to all sorts of emotional manipulations. A decade ago this sort of material would have left me quite cold but it’s hard not to engage your imagination to think how you would feel in those same situations. This is the sort of book that could easily make you never want to let your child out of your sights again.

You can imagine then that this proved pretty uncomfortable reading for me and I am sure that if I wasn’t reading it for my work, I would likely have abandoned it long before the end. That would not be so much a reflection of the book’s quality as my feeling about its intensity and that it sits outside my usual areas of interest. Still, having read it I feel that I ought to try to organize some of my thoughts about the book as a crime story.

Let’s start then with the concept of the kidnapping scheme that is described here. It is easy to understand why such a scheme could prove highly effective. Everything about the system is designed to ensure complicity, making it near-impossible for the victims to go to the authorities. In the author’s notes at the end of the novel McKinty suggests that he was inspired by what he learned about exchange kidnappings during a stay in Mexico – my own thoughts went to tiger kidnapping crimes like the Bank of Ireland robbery a little over a decade ago.

What makes McKinty’s idea feel incredible is not the premise but the scale. The idea that such a scheme could be successful, running through countless victims without a breakdown seems to really stretch credibility. Even with the most careful victim selection and the odd dead end, the scheme would require a clinical tidiness that feels quite far-fetched.

The novel is broken into two sections, the first dealing with the kidnapping of Kylie and what Rachel does in response, the second exploring what happens afterwards. The first part was by far the more engaging for me as it focuses on establishing the principal characters and exploring how it would feel to go through their ordeal. I had little difficulty putting myself in either character’s position and while I may question the wisdom of some of those choices (I am thinking particularly of a character Rachel comes to rely upon), I always understood them.

Both Rachel and Pete, her former brother-in-law, feel credible and I appreciate that there is an attempt to portray them as relatively normal people, each going through problems that predate the kidnapping. I appreciated the way that these can both sit in the background but also at times are shown to clearly inform or affect the characters’ choices, often in quite critical ways.

While I empathized with Pete, I cannot say that I found him particularly likable. I found it rather hard to relate to his intensity of feelings about his niece and can’t say that I was rooting for some of the later developments in the story to happen. The social issues that his storyline raises and discusses however are handled very thoughtfully and I appreciated that McKinty didn’t go the route of giving us overtly heroic characters to follow but rather more flawed and three-dimensional characters.

There are few surprises in this first section but to be honest that didn’t trouble me at all. The pacing is so strong and the stakes are set out so clearly that I found myself quite gripped and wanting to see how things would play out. My issues with the novel really lie with its second phase.

Here I have to be a little more vague to avoid giving too much away about the key developments. I can say that this second section of the novel is more action-focused than the first and might be summed up as ‘Rachel goes looking for trouble’.

It is this section of the novel that has to demystify the Chain, giving us information about its origins. This was, of course, necessary but it struck me as rather anticlimactic. Rather than feeling satisfied and that I understood these events better, I found it even harder to believe how the Chain could have started in the first place once I had met those responsible. It doesn’t help that, in contrast to characters like Rachel and Pete, they feel somewhat disconnected from reality – a sort of cinematic evil rather than a truthful one. The more we know them, the further we get from the character-focused material in the first part that had been so interesting, and instead we find ourselves in thriller territory.

It really didn’t work for me. While I can understand why Rachel might decide not to let matters lie, I feel that the novel seems to lose its focus on exploring its characters from that point on. The shift in tone and style feels quite abrupt and it tries to push Rachel into more clearly heroic territory that I am not sure was earned by the character up until that point. Nor can I say that I found the action particularly exciting although it is described in quite cinematic terms. It probably doesn’t help that the reader is required to accept a few really contrived plot developments that are needed to set up that big action-driven finale.

For all of my complaints about this second section, one aspect I did appreciate was that it didn’t completely forget about the things that had been done in the first. This was welcome, even if it feels a little half-hearted – I suppose the question of what justice would look like in this situation is a debatable one. While I understood the choice that McKinty makes at this moment, I think it might have been more interesting to either leave it open-ended or go darker.

The Chain had been at its most interesting when our protagonists were reacting to events beyond their control. It is the question of what they would do with so much on the line and under such intense pressure that made the early chapters feel so compulsive. Once that pressure is withdrawn, the novel seems to lose much of that propulsive momentum and so, for me at least, my interest went with it.

Call for the Dead by John le Carré

The Verdict

This spy thriller also offers a pretty compelling and well-clued mystery.

Book Details

Originally published in 1961
George Smiley #1
Followed by A Murder of Quality

The Blurb

George Smiley is no one’s idea of a spy—which is perhaps why he’s such a natural. But Smiley apparently made a mistake. After a routine security interview, he concluded that the affable Samuel Fennan had nothing to hide. Why, then, did the man from the Foreign Office shoot himself in the head only hours later? Or did he?

The heart-stopping tale of intrigue that launched both novelist and spy, Call for the Dead is an essential introduction to le Carré’s chillingly amoral universe.

He’s dead. Killed himself at 10.30 this evening. Left a letter to the Foreign Secretary. The police rang one of his secretaries and got permission to open the letter. Then they told us. There’s going to be an inquiry.

My Thoughts

Last week I read a mystery novel by mistake.

The circumstances were that I found myself for once quite a way ahead of schedule (that wouldn’t last) and so I decided that I would take advantage of the opportunity to read something I had no intention of reviewing on the blog. I took a quick look at my shelves and picked out the very first book from my “everything else” pile, not even bothering to read the blurb.

The book, Call for the Dead, was the novel that introduced readers to George Smiley, the rather nondescript, desk-bound spy who is le Carré’s best known creation. I had picked this up some years ago around the time that the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie came out but never actually got around to it (nor, come to that, the movie). When I returned to it I expected an espionage story but it took just a couple of pages for me to realize my mistake as the book almost immediately presents Smiley with a suspicious death to investigate.

Call for the Dead begins with Smiley being contacted by his superior within the service to ask for details about a routine security interview he had conducted the day before. The reason is that the subject, Samuel Fennan, had committed suicide just a few hours after the meeting and left a note saying that he had been unable to take the pressure of the investigation. This note had gone to the ministerial level leading to some heavy pressure on the department and a desire for some answers.

Smiley expresses that he is baffled. The interview was, he assures him, a completely routine affair in response to an anonymous accusation that Fennan had dabbled in extreme politics at university. He insists that the conversation had been genial and points out that he had made it quite clear that the matter was a formality and that he had indicated that the matter was closed and that he would be exonerated in his report. What, he wonders, could have changed in just a few hours to drive the man to take his own life?

This is a fascinating starting point for the story as the author does an excellent job of exploring the situation logically, pointing out the inconsistencies and oddities of the situation as Smiley tries to think things through. Before long he is interviewing the dead man’s widow and finds that rather than making things clearer, the situation seems more confused than ever.

While Smiley tries to reconcile the suicide with his own observations, the reader will likely be somewhat ahead of the sleuth in these early chapters. Rather than feeling redundant however, le Carré uses this portion of the book to introduce us to Smiley and the nature of the work he does, giving us a better understanding of the man and the methods he will employ in this story. By the time he finds a decisive clue pointing at murder we have a good grasp of the man, enabling the reader to focus on some of the more curious details of the case.

There is one clue in particular, referenced in the novel’s title, that proves particularly helpful in steering the investigation away from suicide and toward murder. The significance of the clue is quite immediately apparent and yet it takes time to understand what implications we should draw from it and to begin to assemble a picture of the crime and the reasons for it.

Le Carré operates with a relatively small cast of characters which does rather limit the possible answers as to whodunit. I think though that even if the reader suspects the correct person there is still plenty that needs to be explained to fully understand what had happened and why. Discovering the answers to those questions is quite rewarding and I think the author paced the revelations of information well enough to allow the reader to feel that there is a gradual movement toward learning the truth. Even though I had guessed the killer, the motive and the identity of the letter writer some chapters before the truth is revealed, I still found this to be a really compelling read and I loved seeing exactly how everything would come together.

I really enjoyed the process of getting to know Smiley who, while not a particularly flashy character, struck me as good company. While I was new to the books, I was at least familiar with the concept of Smiley who has long been described to me as sort of the antithesis of Fleming’s Bond. Smiley is rather dry and academic, rarely ventures out into the field and has no romantic encounters at all (he is, we learn, separated from his wife but given she does not directly appear here I do not feel she counts, at least in the context of this story). In spite of those traits though I find his sincerity and cool, logical thinking to be quite attractive and enjoyed reading how he comes to piece the whole matter together.

That explanation, as I indicated earlier, did not particularly surprise me but it did satisfy me. It hinges on some very careful, solid observations that I think helped make sense of the connections. For those who are less interested in the mystery than in the espionage, there is plenty of that here too with the author carefully laying out the meaning of what is being done and how characters’ actions may be influenced by or impact forces from mainland Europe.

It unfolds at a pretty smooth and solid pace, making it a relatively easy read, and it even incorporates a little action toward the end which is written well and easy to visualize. As for the novel’s espionage content, I found it to be quite fascinating and I appreciated the emphasis on attempting to realistically show details of how some things are worked and even, in a memorable chapter describing Smiley’s own work in the field during the thirties, what it would feel like to be on assignment. The result is a fascinating book that I found to be quite compelling and which I am glad I made the time to read. Whether read as a mystery or spy thriller, I felt Call for the Dead was a superb read and I am looking forward to making time to read the next now which I understand is also primarily a detective story.

The Disaster Tourist by Yun Ko-Eun, translated by Lizzie Buehler

Book Details

Originally published in 2013 as 밤의 여행자들
English translation first published in 2020

The Blurb

Jungle is a cutting–edge travel agency specializing in tourism to destinations devastated by disaster and climate change. And until she found herself at the mercy of a predatory colleague, Yona was one of their top representatives. Now on the verge of losing her job, she’s given a proposition: take a paid “vacation” to the desert island of Mui and pose as a tourist to assess the company’s least profitable holiday.

When she uncovers a plan to fabricate an extravagant catastrophe, she must choose: prioritize the callous company to whom she’s dedicated her life, or embrace a fresh start in a powerful new position? An eco–thriller with a fierce feminist sensibility, The Disaster Tourist introduces a fresh new voice to the United States that engages with the global dialogue around climate activism, dark tourism, and the #MeToo movement.

The Verdict

A fascinating exploration of the ethics of tourism and of the relationship between people and the corporations that employ them. It may not be a pure genre work but it is highly recommended nonetheless.

News of the deaths moved fast that week. Word was spreading quickly, but it wouldn’t be long before people lost interest. By the time funeral proceedings began, the public would have already forgotten the deceased.

My Thoughts

Yona has worked for Jungle for more than ten years. Jungle is a travel agency that takes tourists to visit and work in areas affected by natural disasters and climate change and Yona’s job has been to work out how to create their tour packages. Recently however it seems that her career has stalled as she is increasingly being tasked with handling customer complaints and she suspects that she may be on the verge of being forced out. The proof seems to come when her boss makes unwanted sexual advances to her in the elevator one day, apparently confident that if she complains the company will not want to do anything about it.

As she becomes increasingly disillusioned she decides to resign but instead of accepting her resignation, her supervisor suggests that she take a paid leave of absence and visit an unprofitable tourist destination to offer her thoughts on whether it can be salvaged. She is unsure whether he is trying to buy her off but decides to take up the offer, hoping at least to relax for the first time in years and possibly restore her reputation by preparing an excellent report.

Her destination is the island of Mui which lies a short distance off the coast of Vietnam. She soon discovers why it has become a failing destination but when she experiences a travel mishap she finds herself stuck on the island. As she waits for her papers to arrive to enable her to leave the island, she learns however that some on the island have a plan to restore its status as a thriving disaster tourism destination…

I should probably start by acknowledging that The Disaster Tourist is not easily categorized as a genre work, though I would argue that the scale of the crimes we see planned are on a scale far beyond those of any other novel I have written about on this blog to date. I would also add that while it doesn’t always read like a thriller, it certainly incorporates some elements of that style as the book nears its conclusion and that the book struck me as possessing an outlook on the world and the people that inhabit it that feels like it belongs firmly to the noir tradition.

Perhaps the place to begin is with the book’s central conceit that a company like Jungle could spring up. While some might find it hard to imagine that a company solely devoted to disaster tourism might be a thing, there are clearly examples of package tours that do exactly what is described. What I think Yun does brilliantly is to explore the relationship between those tours and the place that is supposedly being rejuvenated by its tourism industry might be and to sincerely question whether this is aiding the areas’ economic recovery or sustaining and perhaps even prolonging its poverty.

Some of the novel’s most powerful material comes in its exploration of the personalities of the different people who are on the tour along with Yona and their different motivations for visiting. Yun not only describes the reasons they believe they are making their visits and the power dynamics between the locals and the visitors but also gives us a powerful illustration of how Yona, who is more aware of the crafting of the tour experience, finds herself behave in a way she finds shameful at a point in the tour.

I have read some reviews that suggest that Yona is not a particularly forceful or dynamic character, and I think that there is a little bit of truth to that. While we get given a little bit of backstory at the start of the novel, we get little sense of her life beyond work. I think though that is rather the point as we come to realize that Jungle has really consumed Yona’s life and defined who she has become. Here she represents a corporate drone – someone who has little purpose beyond the company and who cannot really envisage their life without it.

The scenario that Yona finds herself in is clearly quite fantastic but I felt that the issues raised were powerful and compelling. What do desperate people do when they risk losing everything? This is a recurring idea throughout the novel and I find it fascinating to observe the parallels between these characters, often coming from very different backgrounds and situations, and the choices they decide to make. Here once again Yun does an admirable job of exploring the reasons behind those choices, even if we do not really get to know those characters on a truly individual level.

This arguably is the greatest issue with the book – that the scope of the story it tells within such a limited page count does not allow for much time to be spent on building up the characters as individuals. Instead they tend to be established with their plot function, described in shorthand such as ‘Man 2’. It is dehumanizing and perhaps numbs the reader to the individual cost of some of what happens, though here once again I feel that very clearly fits with the central argument that the book is making.

I don’t want to say much more about the novel for fear of spoiling the experience. The book is, after all, quite short and to discuss the exact nature of the thriller elements later in the novel would likely detract from them. I personally found them to be engaging and I think the story’s resolution feels appropriate to the themes that the novel had established and discussed.

I found The Disaster Tourist to be a thoughtful, provocative and highly engaging novel. It’s not a pure genre read but I nonetheless think it worthy of a strong recommendation.

A Reasonable Doubt by Phillip Margolin

Book Details

Originally published 2020
Robin Lockwood #3
Preceded by The Perfect Alibi
Followed by A Matter of Life and Death

The Blurb

Robin Lockwood is a young criminal defense attorney and partner in a prominent law firm in Portland, Oregon. A former MMA fighter and Yale Law graduate, she joined the firm of legal legend Regina Barrister not long before Regina was forced into retirement by early onset Alzheimer’s. 

One of Regina’s former clients, Robert Chesterfield, shows up in the law office with an odd request―he’s seeking help from his old attorney in acquiring patent protection for an illusion. Chesterfield is a professional magician of some reknown and he has a major new trick he’s about to debut. This is out of the scope of the law firm’s expertise, but when Robin Lockwood looks into his previous relationship with the firm, she learns that twenty years ago he was arrested for two murders, one attempted murder, and was involved in the potentially suspicious death of his very rich wife. At the time, Regina Barrister defended him with ease, after which he resumed his career as a magician in Las Vegas. 

Now, decades later, he debuts his new trick―only to disappear at the end. He’s a man with more than one dark past and many enemies―is his disappearance tied to one of the many people who have good reason to hate him? Was he killed and his body disposed of, or did he use his considerable skills to engineer his own disappearance?

Robin Lockwood must unravel the tangled skein of murder and bloody mischief to learn how it all ties together.

The Verdict

A Reasonable Doubt is built upon a surprisingly solid puzzle. Those approaching this in search of “the ultimate impossible crime” may be disappointed but fans of legal adventures may enjoy.

“In ancient Egypt, those who offended the gods were entombed alive in a sarcophagus and died a horrible death,” Chesterfield said. “I am known as an escape artist. Tonight, I will perform the ultimate escape: I will cheat death.”

My Thoughts

A Reasonable Doubt is the third in Margolin’s series of legal thrillers featuring Robin Lockwood, a young criminal defense lawyer who put herself through law school as a professional mixed martial artist. Normally I don’t like to start a series in the middle but I decided to make a rare exception for this one.

The book first caught my eye a few months ago when I spotted the rather bold claim on the inside of the dust jacket that a murder that takes place in it was “the ultimate impossible crime”. Of course, I learned from my recent experience never to trust advertising copy, particularly when it comes to impossible murders, but I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Murder plus magicians often makes for a pretty effective combination.

Robin is contacted by Robert Chesterfield, a magician who is seeking legal advice on patenting an illusion from a retired partner, Regina, who had helped him years earlier. While she considers whether to take him on as a client given his request falls outside her normal areas of expertise she decides to make contact with Regina to find out more about him. What she learns is that he had been accused of several murders before his wife died in mysterious circumstances. The legal cases against him failed thanks to Regina’s smart defense as well as some inept lawyering on the part of the prosecutor assigned the case and he used his new notoriety as a springboard to a Las Vegas residency.

After explaining why she cannot take the case she is invited to witness the first public performance of the illusion. Chesterfield is to be entombed in a sarcophagus that will be filled with venomous snakes and scorpions. Robin herself checks the sarcophagus to make sure there are no trick doors. When the time comes to open it however he has vanished and everyone, including his assistants, seem genuinely baffled as to where he has gone.

While the above description of the first half of the book doesn’t seem to suggest any impossibilities, I am happy to report that the book offers up two though neither comes close to matching the hyperbole of “the ultimate impossible crime”.

Given how late these two incidents take place in the novel I feel I have to be pretty vague about the circumstances. Instead I will try to describe and address them in more general terms.

One involves a murder that takes place in front of a crowd. While the book seems to suggest that the fact the murder took place was impossible I think that ignores that there obviously were people who could have done it. Instead I would suggest that a better claim for it being an impossible crime lies in the problem that almost all of the suspects (and there are a lot) were observing each other in the audience or their movements were visible on stage.

This has shades of Who Killed Dick Whittington? (which I suggested did not qualify as impossible) and The Problem of the Green Capsule (which does). Whether you accept it as an impossibility or not, know that the question of how it was done is quite short-lived. We quickly learn at what point the murder took place and how it was done, even if the exact identity of that person seems unclear for a while longer.

Regardless of whether it is impossible, I think the novel builds up to the moment of the murder really well building a strong sense of place and occasion. I had little difficulty imagining what was going on or where the key people were in relation to each other and while the reveal of the corpse is not exactly surprising, I think it is quite effective.

The second moment in the story that could be said to be impossible is simpler still but I think that simplicity gives it an added impact. This takes place in Chapter 20 and involves a character surviving something that ought to have killed them. Once again the explanation comes too quickly for it to really make a big impact as a puzzle but I think the idea is striking and I love the background to the incident and the way it is interpreted by the characters involved. Simple but effective.

Given how late these two incidents occur (and that one is fairly peripheral to the plot), it seems odd that the blurb would lead with them. Instead the novel places more emphasis on the reader gaining a sense of Chesterfield as a man and understanding the events he is widely believed to have committed. Over half the book is spent on those previous events and understanding the significance of the book’s title – why he would escape on a reasonable doubt even if he seems obviously guilty.

Still while the structure may be a little awkward in terms of creating an easy-to-summarize plot, I think there are some benefits to how it presents its timeline somewhat out of sequence. This allows us to encounter Robert for the first time without a knowledge of that background which will clearly be so important to the remainder of the story.

I also really liked the way that Margolin uses the character of Regina within the story. She is clearly a brilliant lawyer and has information that she simply cannot recall on demand. This features in a very powerful moment late in the story which serves almost as a challenge for the reader as a key deduction is given but completely stripped of the context needed to make sense of it. It’s a clever plot element that I think works nicely.

The novel’s two impossibilities are perhaps too insubstantial to feel properly clued but I had few complaints with the way the key points of the murder itself are presented. The reader is given enough information to deduce much of what had happened and why. If there is a problem it is that the suspects feel rather lightly sketched in comparison with the victim and so there is little sense of who those suspects are beyond knowledge of their motive or opportunity. Still, I think the choice of a killer is a good one and I enjoyed that reveal.

While I am on the subject of things I liked, let me mention the novel’s treatment of stage magic and illusions. This is not just a character’s profession but an important element of the story and I feel Margolin shows an understanding and appreciation for stage magic. It’s perhaps not as deeply woven into the story as in Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat but the novel not only discusses some aspects of stage performance, it also addresses some parts of the business side of the profession too.

I also appreciated that there was some actual discussion of legal principles and ideas. I am not sure it is the most naturalistic conversation but the author does a good job of making legal conversations feel accessible and important to the plot.

I was less enamored of the writing style which tends to be quite direct, particularly in the earliest chapters. While I can applaud the idea of getting the story moving as quickly as possible, the execution of that here feels off with Margolin often telling us things he could show us. At times that means that characters behave in ways that feel quite against their interests in that moment – such as when Robert makes a rather hard pass at Regina. While people certainly do things out of a sense of compulsion, Robert’s typical craftiness makes that seem unlikely, and so it comes off as staggeringly ill-advised.

The other complaint I have is that the book does not lean quite heavily enough into the concept behind its title. While the author doesn’t definitively state what the truth behind those initial murders were, I think it is clear who we are meant to believe did them. I really liked the idea that there is a disconnect between what you believe and what you can prove in court and I think the plot could have more closely reflected that and given us a corpse we are unsure how we feel about.

While I do not recommend reading this purely for the impossibilities, A Reasonable Doubt is a pretty quick read. I do wonder if I would have found the opening less grating had I already known the characters. The characters and their relationships are all clearly communicated however and I did find the elements of magic and illusion added some interest for me.

Shiver by Allie Reynolds

Book Details

Originally published in 2021

The Blurb

When Milla accepts an off-season invitation to Le Rocher, a cozy ski resort in the French Alps, she’s expecting an intimate weekend of catching up with four old friends. It might have been a decade since she saw them last, but she’s never forgotten the bond they forged on this very mountain during a winter spent fiercely training for an elite snowboarding competition. 

Yet no sooner do Milla and the others arrive for the reunion than they realize something is horribly wrong. The resort is deserted. The cable cars that delivered them to the mountaintop have stopped working. Their cell phones–missing. And inside the hotel, detailed instructions await them: an icebreaker game, designed to draw out their secrets. A game meant to remind them of Saskia, the enigmatic sixth member of their group, who vanished the morning of the competition years before and has long been presumed dead.

Stranded in the resort, Milla’s not sure what’s worse: the increasingly sinister things happening around her or the looming snowstorm that’s making escape even more impossible. All she knows is that there’s no one on the mountain she can trust. Because someone has gathered them there to find out the truth about Saskia…someone who will stop at nothing to get answers. And if Milla’s not careful, she could be the next to disappear…

The Verdict

The alpine setting is effective and the rivalry between Milla and Saskia intrigued me. Read this as a thriller rather than a puzzle you can solve and you may well enjoy it.

It’s that time of year again. The time the glacier gives up bodies.

A Note

A couple of months ago I pledged that I would be devoting my Monday reviews in April, May and June to writing about locked room and impossible crime stories. Some of you may have already noticed however in the way this post has been categorized that I haven’t applied that label to this book. That is because when I acquired this book it was on the basis of a number of reviews and a statement at the top of the Amazon listing describing it as a ‘propulsive locked room debut’. Unfortunately while it may be propulsive and it is the author’s debut novel, it simply isn’t a locked room mystery but rather a closed circle mystery.

I’m not holding that against the book and want to put that misleading marketing to one side. Authors are rarely responsible for the blurbs and this is hardly the only novel in recent years to be mismarketed in this way. I think the book deserves to be discussed on its own merits and have endeavored to do so below.

And for those who may regret that this isn’t a locked room review I’ll try to squeeze an extra one in during the next few weeks to make up for it!

My Thoughts

Shiver begins with the reunion of a group of retired snowboarders at a resort in the French Alps during the off-season. Ten years earlier they had become close while training and preparing for a big competition but that winter ended in tragedy when Saskia disappeared on the day of the big competition, never to be seen or heard from again. A lengthy court battle had followed and shortly before the reunion takes place Saskia had finally been declared dead though her body had never been found.

It quickly becomes clear though that something is wrong. When the group disembarks the cable cars they find that the resort is deserted and no one will admit to having been the one to send the invitations. Then during an icebreaker game that has been set out in which the group are supposed to trade secrets things take a sinister turn. Among the statements read out are that one person killed Saskia and another knows where she is. When they realize that they are stranded and that their cellphones have disappeared, leaving them with no way to contact the outside world, they begin to suspect that they have been gathered with a more sinister purpose in mind.

Reynolds tells her story from the perspective of Milla, one of that group, who lets us know that she has a secret about what happened with Saskia that no one in the group knows. After establishing what is happening at the resort (and making it clear that Milla neither considers herself to be the killer or the person who knows where the body is), the novel alternates chapters set in the present with those set ten years earlier, allowing us to slowly build up a picture of what actually took place all those years ago. This technique works pretty well as both timelines offer points of interest in terms of plot and character.

The historical chapters are set in the period before the disappearance took place. What that means is that the reader will not be given evidence of what has happened but will be encouraged to look for clues as to what is about to take place. These chapters also help build our understanding of the origin of the tensions that exist within the group years later and give us a better understanding of who Saskia was as a person. While she and all of the group are strong personalities, I felt each were believable.

These chapters are rich in discussion of what it is like to be a snowboarder and to be in a community of aspiring athletes. That world is quite foreign to me but I think Reynolds brings it to life quite effectively and helped me understand what it would feel like to compete and why, given how few snowboarders can support themselves exclusively through the sport, these characters would have pursued it. We also get to see how passions run high on occasion, fuelled by adrenaline and a sense of competition, leading to rivalries and romantic tensions within the group.

The modern day chapters read more like a thriller, as the group slowly grow to suspect one another. I would place an emphasis on the word ‘slowly’ – those expecting things to quickly descend into a bloodbath will be disappointed. While the murder teased in the book’s tagline does eventually take place, you will get through a lot of the book before you encounter a body. Instead the intention is to build a sense of tension, isolation and distrust.

It is partially successful. The portrayal of distrust within the group is certainly there are quite effective, as is the sense of isolation and the hostility of the environment around them. Reynolds quickly and convincingly establishes reasons why the characters can’t just snowboard their way to safety down the mountain and there are a few ominous suggestions that seem to point at excitement to come. Unfortunately I just didn’t feel the sense that tension was mounting, at least in the first half of the novel – after the initial disconcerting idea of the icebreaker game and their realization about being stranded, I didn’t feel like the level of danger was increasing – simply that characters were sounding each other out.

The second half of the novel is a different story as things seem to accelerate and we get some more direct evidence of the peril the characters face. A few of those moments are quite outlandish but generally in an entertaining way and I think that the book would have benefitted by embracing those elements a little earlier. My favorite of these, which I cannot describe without spoiling it, comes at the start of Chapter 57.

Reynolds has a lot to resolve at the end of the book, needing to explain both what happened to Saskia ten years earlier and who is orchestrating the events at the abandoned ski resort. I think she manages to pull together a convincing and satisfying explanation, at least for the circumstances surrounding Saskia’s fate. I was a little disappointed however when it came to the resolution to events in the present day – at least in terms of the resolution of the mystery elements.

The problem is perhaps one of my own expectations. I had unfortunately made a guess as to the villain’s identity at the start of the novel, long before I had any idea of why they would want to have done it. While I appreciated the development of their motives the ending did not surprise me at all, nor did I feel that it was really clued.

This is a particular shame as the events that follow their reveal are great. Reynolds delivers an exciting, tense conclusion that kept me engaged to the final page wanting to know what had happened.

While I may have been disappointed with the novel as a puzzle, I think it works pretty well as a thriller. I think the alpine setting and snowboarding details are incorporated well and that the characters each felt pretty distinct and credible (at least in the historical timeline). In particular, I felt that the rivalry between Milla and Saskia was developed in some thoughtful and interesting ways and that for me was the most successful aspect of the novel.