MURDER IN THE FAMILY by Cara Hunter (HarperCollins; 400 pages; ₹550)
This is a mash-up of true crime and a reality show conveyed to us in script form. Film director Guy Howard wants to solve the murder of his stepfather, Luke Ryder, that occurred when Guy was ten years old. Guy and his two older sisters were at their palatial London home with Luke, their mother having gone to a party close by. All of them swear they saw nothing. Twenty years on, a Netflix reality show Infamous decides to solve the case with six experts (a play on six suspects). But as we read on, questions arise about the reliability of the witnesses and the unbiased nature of the experts questioning them. Twist after twist takes us to a truly Agatha Christie-style shocker of a solution.
The conceit of the book is in its narrative technique—written like a tele-drama with voice overs giving summaries, and putting forth the evidence in the form of interviews, maps and tables—that makes the reader an active participant. The script form forces the reader to work harder to imagine the setting and the interiority of the character. Those who enjoy true crime and solving cold cases and fans of Janice Hallett’s narrative style will like this one. Shorn of atmospheric details and setting, Murder in the Family reads like a play or a set of transcripts in a murder case. A taut page-turner with a smooth writing style, Hunter draws us skilfully into mulling over the question of who killed Luke. It is not surprising that this book is a TikTok sensation.
PAST LYING by Val McDermid (Sphere; 464 pages; ₹1,909)
Set during the lockdown, which already feels like it was in some other historical era, Past Lying is a measured take on the life, rivalries and friendships in the crime-fiction writerly world. A librarian discovers something peculiar in the archive of a newly dead crime-fiction writer, Jake Stein, cancelled in the last year of his life for sexual abuse of an ex-girlfriend. It is an unfinished manuscript that details a murder [luring the victim to a deserted spot and strangling her] from the murderer’s [a thinly disguised Jake Stein] point of view so that he could frame his professional rival and chess partner, Ross McEwan who had taken up with Jake’s ex-wife. Enter Detective Karen Pirie, the head of cold cases, who is living in a bubble with her trusty deputy Daisy, in Pirie’s rich boyfriend’s flat. The victim, Pirie realises, bears an eerie resemblance to a young woman who disappeared the previous year. Is the manuscript in fact, fact? That’s what Pirie and her team must answer while negotiating the dire consequences of flouting Covid protocol.
McDermid does a great job of building the suspense and linking it to the emotional trauma wreaked by Covid and other matters on Pirie’s team. Add to this, the tension of a sub-plot with Pirie needing to protect a Syrian refugee on the run from assassins and Pirie’s personal problems, we have a well-defined emotional heart to the story that makes for a very satisfying read.
West Heart Kill asks the meta question: What is the purpose of a crime-fiction novel? Is it to put the reader in the shoes of the protagonist—a cop, a killer, an innocent bystander, a victim?
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Past Lying is also a wry meditation on the state of the writing world, the genre community and its wokeness. McDermid’s book explores how crime-fiction novels are constructed, but she does this in the context of the story rather than using an omniscient narrator and pulling the reader out of the story.
The ‘manuscript within the book’ doesn’t overwhelm the story and acts as a gripping secondary character. Seasoned crime-fiction readers will guess the motive much before the end, but that, in no way, detracts from enjoying the book.
WEST HEART KILL by Dann McDorman (Raven; 288 pages; ₹1,768)
Dann McDorman’s West Heart Kill is a masterclass for a crime-fiction writer—one a writer of the genre will read and appreciate for its conceit in creating a conversation with the reader on the idiosyncrasy and attributes of the genre.
Set in the 1970s, the story is straightforward enough— Adam McAnnis, a Vietnam veteran turned gumshoe detective calls up a rich schoolfriend and gets himself invited to a hunting club [with membership by birth only] in upstate New York. We soon find out that he has been hired by one of the guests to investigate a possible plot against that guest. Before long, a female guest is found dead in the lake, an apparent suicide, and then the club president is shot accidentally. As the detective unravels the various loves and hates of the member- families, we realise all is not well with the club, and there are other interests at play.
MSNBC news producer McDorman however, doesn’t allow us to ever immerse ourselves in the story and wait for the next revelation and twist. No, we readers are expected to be vigilant as to the author’s motives, and if we aren’t, Dann gently prods us in that direction by stopping the action and giving us the author’s words to the reader.
“You begin these new pages with an advantage, or a burden. You know it’s the final day of the story. How? Perhaps you flipped through the book—not to skip forward to see how it ends, you’re not a sociopath, after all—but, rather, out of curiosity…”
Or, at a moment when the detective has noticed something, the author tells us, the readers: “You realise that McAnnis has returned his thoughts to the clubhouse library. Something is nagging at him…”
So, if you are reading the book to become immersed in the story, think again. That’s not the experience the author intends for the reader. West Heart Kill asks the meta question: What is the purpose of a crime-fiction novel? Is it to put the reader in the shoes of the protagonist—a cop, a killer, an innocent bystander, a victim? We often hear from editors and readers that they need to connect with the protagonist emotionally, and that a good storyteller will use character, whimsy and setting to draw us in and keep us there.
McDorman deliberately upends those expectations. He takes you into the story, then hauls you out with an aside about what the genre expects at that point of the novel—for example, the description of the character or the setting— “the author delaying his return to the plot by describing the West Heart grounds and still-sparkling sunlight…” Or we get the tale of the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie, an examination of plot and method, of unreliable narrators and references to Aristotle and De Quincey, and the stalwart of ‘locked room’ mysteries, John Dickson Carr. These asides force a part of us to remain an observer, and understand the mechanics and our expectations of the novel we are reading.
West Heart Kill is an ode to the stalwarts of the genre and to the mechanics of writing one. The end is written like a play. For writers and readers of crime fiction who have read widely and deeply in the field, much of the information revealed in these asides is not new; for beginners, though, this is a goldfield. The titbits, clever as they are, remain that, and don’t resonate with the mystery at the heart of the book. However, in this age of metafiction, West Heart Kill will appeal to those willing to try new ways of reading crime fiction.