Picture this: you’ve started a mystery/thriller/sci-fi/suspense novel—any book that sucks you into a plot that requires full buy-in on the reader’s part. And you do. And it’s well written, it’s all working and then BAM!, it’s not. You’re left like Nathan Lane in The Birdcage, a gay man trying to play a straight man discussing the Miami Dolphins. The betrayal, the bewilderment. Here then are mini-reviews of two recent reads that were working oh-so-well for me right up until the last quarter of the book when they went oh-so-bad.
If you need thrillers that attack from the very first page then look no further. The Hand that Feeds You opens with Morgan Prager walking into her apartment to find her dogs frantic and covered in something sticky. Her fiancé Bennett lies on the floor dead. Dead and torn into pieces. Not surprisingly Morgan goes into shock but even in her dissociative state she cannot believe that her beloved rescue dogs, a Grand Pyrenees and a pit-bull, could have done this. Unfortunately, forensics proves differently and Morgan has to deal with the grief of a dead fiancé and trying to prove her dogs are innocent before they are euthanized.
Author A.J. Rich assembles the cast and plot of The Hand that Feeds You neatly and with precision. Morgan finds an animal rights lawyer and sympathetic worker at the shelter to help her dogs but wrapping up her fiancé’s life proves to be the difficult part. Namely, because he isn’t who he said he was. In fact, finding out who he was at all is almost impossible and as Morgan does uncover clues the picture is not a pretty one.
Much of The Hand that Feeds You works, partly because of the gross novelty of a person being killed by a domesticated pet(s). That plus the increasingly distressing details of Bennett’s past life are more than enough to sustain the tension to a finale but instead new elements continue to pile on. This loss of control culminates in a sudden reveal that feels like the novel has slipped the leash. This might be due to the fact that The Hand that Feeds You has not one but two authors: Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment, who wrote the novel as A.J. Rich. I could almost see them sitting in a room with no conclusion, a looming deadline, and one of them saying, “Oooo, how about this?” and the other replying, “Welll…OK” without conviction, but without any other ideas either. You read it and let me know if I’m barking up the wrong tree.
In the pantheon of bad girls author Jennifer McMahon makes sure that at a young age Amy has earned her spot. She’s the cool girl who wears make-up you’re not allowed to, convinces you to try smoking or to have a drink, and is the first one to kiss a boy. She’s the high-strung, dramatic instigator, the girl with all eyes on her. So it’s hardly surprising when, at the beginning of The Night Sister, she’s found dead of suicide after murdering her husband and son. Her young daughter is found hiding on the roof outside her bedroom window, numb with shock. What happened is clear but why is not and
McMahon knows how to work a slow burn with her novels. Without resorting to theatrics, she infuses enough plausible scariness into her novels to keep the reader jittery and uncertain. In The Night Sister this comes from two sisters—one with a fascination with Alfred Hitchcock, a family motel built with a replica of the Tower of London next to it, and the legend of women who shape shift at night and kill. Add in a small town, a timeline that moves between three generations of a family’s women, and unrequited love and you’ve got a heady mix of real life and horror.
It isn’t until the the book reaches its final stages that the mystery unravels and as it does the whole garment falls apart. I’m not one who always solves the literary puzzle in mysteries but in this case McMahon is not able to carry off a diversion large enough to keep her secret safe. And quite frankly, the theme of a monster that can’t help being a monster is one she used in her previous novel, The Winter People, and it doesn’t play as well the second time around. It is a great humanist construct but when applied to monsters, I’m a stake-through-the-heart, shoot-with-a-silver-bullet, hunt them down and kill them kind of gal. Letting them live makes me think ‘sequel’ but The Night Sister doesn’t have enough to pull me back in a second time.