The Girl Before

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The Girl Before, published by JP Delaney in 2017, is a well done, creepy murder mystery whose main characters seem to be an architect and two young women who follow each other as tenants in an unusual house he has built.  But the real main character is the house.  The premise is that an architect has designed an extreme version of a smart home, one that is entirely run by the built-in computer.  It is also extreme in its minimalist design and comes with a long list of rules the tenant must agree to, including not changing any of the furnishings, not hanging art on the walls, and keeping the house clean and uncluttered at all times.  At first glance it seems that no one would accept the conditions, but nothing nearly as nice can be found in London at a comparable price.

Homes are becoming smarter all the time, so this extreme version is based in reality and brings up the problem of the interaction between human and artificial intelligence.  Supposedly the time is near when artificial intelligence will surpass the human kind, no doubt leading to some serious problems, for instance, a computer smarter than its owner deciding to do something other than follow instructions because it has a better idea. ( I’ve already reached this point, since my new, computerized washing machine has proved to be smarter than I am.)

Another obvious problem is, of course, that computers can be hacked.  The more aspects of your life are controlled by computer, the more opportunities there are for anyone who wants to cause you harm.

Then there is the question of minimalism.  The architect in the book believes that beautiful but minimalist surroundings can affect a person’s life for the better, inspiring him to live more thoughtfully and strive to bring himself into alignment with the quality of his surroundings.  There may be something to that idea, but I can’t help imagining that the sheer inconvenience of an entire house that can’t stand the tiniest bit of clutter would probably just drive someone crazy.

 

 

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The Widow

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The Widow, published by Fiona Barton in 2016, is a successful psychological thriller presented in a novel way.  The plot concerns the abduction of a toddler and the various characters involved in the crime, including the child’s mother, the detective obsessed with solving the crime, the reporter who covers the story, and the main suspect and his wife (the eponymous widow).  Alternate chapters continue the story from the points of view of each of the characters except the suspect, whose thoughts are only presented as reported by his wife.  This may be due to the basic problem of writing from the point of view of a psychopath – unless you are one, how can you know what they think?

Another difficulty is understanding the thinking of someone married to a psychopath, and what brought these two people together in the first place.  Barton doesn’t explain this explicitly, but she provides enough background, told from the wife’s point of view, to give us an idea how it happened.  Her husband chose her when she was very young.  He was older, a clever man with a good job, and able to make a big impression on a rather timid and sheltered girl and her parents.  The assumption is that her obedient and admiring attitude is what attracted him.

An interesting aspect of the plot is the premise that both the suspect and his wife change over the years.  His psychological aberrations hadn’t yet manifested themselves at the time of his marriage, but gradually became more and more pronounced.  And of course, impressionable young girls, no matter how insecure and self-effacing, grow up.

Different Class

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You don’t have to understand Latin to enjoy  “Different Class”, but it would certainly help.  This book, published by Joanne Harris in 2016, has two voices and two time peiods.  One voice is that of  a teacher at a venerable grammar school in Yorkshire who peppers his conversation, and even his thoughts, with quotes from ancient Romans.  The second is one of the school’s boys.  The story shifts back and forth between 1981, when the boy was in Straitley’s Latin class, and 2005, when the boy is back in town and Straitley is contemplating retirement.

This boy has done some terrible things, but which boy is he?  He makes entries in a dairy without ever mentioning his name, and refers to his schoolmates by nicknames, confusing the issue of who’s who.  I admit that this ploy confused me even more than Harris probably intended, which brings me to a suggestion I would like to make to writers:  Be careful how confusing you make your plot, keeping in mind that the average reader doesn’t read your book in one go, but picks it up and puts it down, doing and thinking of other things between sessions.  It’s hard enough to keep a large cast of characters straight under the best of circumstances.

The book is a mystery story, the mystery being, who is this evil boy?  The most enjoyable aspect of it was the fond depiction of the old fashioned school and gradually recognizing the fine qualities of the old teacher.  The suspense comes from wanting to see if and how the good guy wins and evil is finally punished.

Daisy in Chains

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Sharon Bolton’s “Daisy in Chains”, published in 2015, is definitely a thriller, but the cover blurb is misleading.  It says, “Would you fall for a serial killer?  Three of his victims did…”  That’s not a true description of what happens in this story, which does, however, involve a serial killer.  The actual plot reaches extremes of unlikelihood, but is so well done and intriguing that I won’t spoil it for possible readers by revealing the true version of events.

The cast of characters includes a handsome doctor who has been convicted of a series of murders of overweight young women, the police detective who serendipitously found the evidence to put him away, and a lovely female lawyer who has succeeded in overturning the convictions of several convicted murderers.  She doesn’t believe that the men she freed were innocent, only that their convictions were improper due to shortcomings by the prosecution, so there’s no reason why she shouldn’t take on the case of the convicted doctor.

Bolton does a good job describing a variety of character types, from domineering parents to body-image-conscious young women, and from men who know they’re  handsome to the nutty groupies who are attracted to them even if they kill people.

The Farm

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A synopsis of the plot of Tom Rob Smith’s  “The Farm”:

The parents of a gormless young Englishman retire to a farm in Sweden.  Mom develops paranoia.  Or maybe there are sinister goings-on in rural Sweden and her enemies are really out to get her.

Either way, the most striking element of the plot, as far as I’m concerned, is the way it illustrates the dangers, or more exactly horrors, of life in a very small community.  It doesn’t matter whether the most prominent local farmer is an evil conspirator or simply tends to take advantage of his status as a big fish in a small pond, or whether his friend the doctor is part of a cabal or just trying to be helpful.  The point is that as soon as you join such a community you’re dependent on a small group of people whom you didn’t choose.  A nest of criminals would be a worst case scenario, but simple incompatibility is bad enough.

I don’t know whether Tom Rob Smith has Swedish ancestors or just adapted to what seems to be an unwritten convention among Scandinavian writers, which is to be depressing.  Is it because they generally do their writing in the winter, never seeing the sun and often contemplating suicide?  Is it just an accidental impression made on the reader by repeated descriptions of darkness and cold?  Whatever the explanation, I usually avoid them.

The Farm was no more depressing than average, for story set in Scandinavia.  The plot was interesting, but the book would have been more enjoyable if the characters were more appealing.

Research – The Bestseller

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Research, the murder mystery/thriller published by Philip Kerr in 2014, is one of the most peculiar books of this genre that I have ever read.  The plot is what kept me reading, since the book violated one of my most important criteria for an enjoyable book, namely having an interesting and/or sympathetic protagonist.  In this case the book is narrated alternately by the “victim”, a famous writer who is selfish and inconsiderate, but no more flawed than the average human being, and, to a greater extent, by the murderer.  At first the killer sounds like a reasonable person, but he soon reveals himself to be a revolting psychopath.

Kerr explains the character of his psychopath by giving him a background as a special ops British soldier during the war in Ireland.  This is okay for the purposes of fiction, but reminded me of a book I read years ago by an actual special ops veteran who subsequently became a mercenary and wrote a fascinating (and very well written) memoir.  The real special forces veteran wasn’t a “nice guy”, in that he enjoyed it when nasty things happened to people he didn’t like and thought nothing of exploiting his persona to scare a civilian if it suited him.  On the other hand, he had no tendency toward criminal, let alone homicidal, behavior in his private life.

Kerr’s ex-soldier, on the other hand, dwells a lot on how much he enjoys killing people.  He devises a plot that requires at least one murder in order to revenge himself on the famous writer who he believes has exploited him, and enjoys committing additional murders as they become necessary.  In fact, the plot is so complicated that it seems impossible for it to succeed.  The suspense is provided at first by wondering what the murderer’s plan is, and then by watching as he copes with obstacles as they arise.  Apparently, even the most convoluted plot can be successful if murdering people right and left is no obstacle.

Monaco and southern France deserve mention as the beautiful settings for some of the most grisly action.

 

When She Was Bad

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When She Was Bad, published by Tammy Cohen in 2016, could be called a psychological thriller, but has too little action to fit the definition of thriller.  It’s more of a psychological horror story, in which a fairly random group of not very interesting or attractive people, each with a set of problems, work together in an office at a big company and are subjected to the additional stress of getting a tough new boss.

In alternate chapters we learn about the fraught personal situation of each character.  There is also an additional character, a psychologist who decades earlier was involved in the disposition of two children, a boy and a girl, who had been traumatized by extreme parental abuse.  The suspense is provided by wondering which of the characters in the office is not just dumb or neurotic, but is actually unhinged as a result of his or her childhood experience.

It was well done, if a bit long (377 pages) for a story that had no compelling characters in it.  Maybe the most interesting aspect of it was the picture of workplace relationships, and the way people who wouldn’t be likely to socialize with each other are often forced to develop some sort of relationship because they have to work together.