I have been saying for years–literally years–that when it comes to crime fiction, the women are killing it.
Literally, in some cases.
There’s always been this weird, misogynistic mentality that women don’t write as dark as men; which is absurd on its face. I could easily name any number of women who’ve written noir that makes your skin crawl with its darkness (Christa Faust’s Money Shot remains a favorite to this day), and even more who explore the darkness of relationships–romantic, friends, family–and go places you can’t imagine in your darkest moments. I am also of the school of thought–trained by being an Edgar judge for Mystery Writers of America–that crime novels, mysteries if you will, are any fiction that is driven by a crime; whether it’s the commission, investigation, cover-up, solving, or the impact of a crime on the characters being explored in the narrative. This greatly broadens the umbrella that is crime fiction (technically, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby count as crime novels under this definition). I often, whenever following an actual criminal investigation or trial in the press/media, find myself wondering about the peripheral characters in these tragedies; how do you go on from there? How does this impact and change the rest of their lives? What if you found out your boyfriend/lover/spouse was a serial killer? What if your best friend was murdered in high school? How does that change you, impact you, influence the decisions you make for the rest of your life?
Jar of Hearts is that kind of novel–and fascinating in its exploration of the story of a woman in just that kind of situation–only even darker.
I didn’t read Jar of Hearts when it was released–I don’t even want to look at the copyright page because seeing how long it took me to get to it will only make me sadder (or angrier at myself) for taking so long to get to it. But I do remember how everyone was buzzing about it everywhere on social media, and I know it won the Thriller Award (among many other recognitions Ms.Hillier deservedly received), and I knew I would eventually get to it.
And when I selected this as part of my reading materials for last week’s trip, I had no idea what a joy-ride I was letting myself in for.
The trial has barely made a dent in the national news. Which is good, because it means less publicity, fewer reporters. But it’s also bad, because just how depraved do crimes have to be nowadays to garner national headlines?
Pretty fucking bad, it seems.
There’s only a brief mention of Calvin James, a.k.a. the Sweetbay Strangler, in the New York Times and on CNN, and his crimes aren’t quite sensational enough to be featured in People magazine of be talked about on The View. But for Pacific Northwesters–people in Washington state, Idaho, and Oregon–the trial of the Sweetbay Strangler is a big deal. The disappearance of Angela Wong fourteen years ago caused a noticeable ripple throughout the Seattle area, as Angela’s father is a bigwig at Microsoft and is a friend of Bill Gates. There were search parties, interviews, a monetary reward that increased with each passing day she didn’t come home. The discovery of the sixteen-year-old’s remains all these years later–only a half mile away from her house–sent shockwaves through the community. The locals remember. #JusticeForAngela was trending on Twitter this morning. It was the ninth or tenth most popular hashtag for only about three hours, but still.
Angela’s parents are present in court. They divorced a year after their daughter was reported missing, her disappearance the last thread in a marriage that had been unraveling for a decade. They sit side by side now, a few rows back from the prosecutor’s table, with their current spouses, united in their grief and desire to see justice served.
Georgina Shaw can’t bring herself to make eye contact with them. Seeing their faces, etched with equal parts heartache and fury, is the worst part of this whole thing. She could have spared them fourteen years of sleepless nights. She could have told them happened the night it actually happened.
Geo could have done a lot of things.
The book opens with Geo testifying at the trial of her ex-boyfriend from when she was in high school. Geo knew that he’d murdered her best friend, helped him cover it up, and never told anyone the truth about what happened to Angela Wong…until her remains turn up in the woods behind Geo’s childhood home, where her father still lives. Sadly, it turns out that Geo’s high school boyfriend not only murdered Angela, but turned out to be a serial killer. This, understandably, derails Geo’s life as a pharmaceutical executive, and sends her to prison for five years.
When Geo and Angela were in school they had a third friend, the third side of the triangle: Kaiser, who is now a cop and is the man who arrests Geo; who hated Geo’s high school boyfriend–who turned out to be a serial killer! Kaiser is having an affair with his partner on the force–married to another cop–but has never really gotten over his (unrequited) feelings for Geo. The book sees Geo through her years in a women’s prison, and then as she returns to her life upon getting out and tries to rebuild her life. The primary issue is that Calvin has escaped from prison (Kaiser is convinced Calvin has been in touch with Geo; Calvin is Kaiser’s great white whale, as it were) and now women are being murdered again, and dismembered–the way Angela was, but none of Kaiser’s other victims were–and they are also being buried near the bodies of young children. Is it Calvin? Is Geo involved?
Kaiser himself is a compelling character that you can’t help but root for–and the flashbacks to when they were teenagers are also so well done that it’s slightly disappointing that there wasn’t more.
Geo also has other secrets, dark secrets she doesn’t want anyone to know–but could prove key to catching the serial killer.
It is to Hillier’s credit that Geo is a compelling and likable character the reader can empathize with; not an easy task for any writer, given the horrible thing Geo did as a teenager, and the reader is so drawn into her world, her psyche, her point of view, that you can’t help rooting for her despite the horrific mistake she made as a young girl. It is also to Hillier’s credit and skill as a writer that the reader is forced to face their own prejudices about people who’ve served time for crimes; should they be shunned, turned away from, avoided as we so often do with them, or should we be sympathetic to their plight? They’ve served their time, paid their debt to society as determined by a court of law; shouldn’t they have a second chance? Who are we to judge them yet again, making them continue to pay that debt? When is forgiveness possible, and is atonement ever successful?
Hillier’s writing style is also exceptional; the reader is drawn in from that opening sentence and the entire books reads like a runaway train–one you not only cannot escape from, but don’t want to.
Jar of Hearts is amazing, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I hate that I was so late to the party–but better late than never.