If You Leave Me Now

One of my favorite writers when I was a kid was Charlotte Armstrong.

Armstrong was astonishing, really. The first book of hers I read was The Witch’s House. My parents had allowed me to join the Mystery Guild and I, of course, one month failed to do my duty and send the order card back declining that month’s selections. It was probably one of the best mistakes I’d ever made through my instinct for procrastination; I wound up getting a three volume omnibus of Armstrong called The Charlotte Armstrong Reader, and Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie. I shelved the Christie and forgot about it until years later–when I’d started reading Christie–but The Witch’s House sounded interesting to me; it had “witch” in the title and I’ve always been drawn to witches, for some reason, and I was at the age when I was still reading my kids’ mystery series but was slowly beginning to transition to books for adults. I was enthralled by The Witch’s House, and read it very quickly, and followed it up by reading the next, Mischief, which I liked even better. But the local library didn’t have any Armstrong novels in stock–which surprises me even more now than it did then–and so I didn’t continue reading Armstrong until years later. Armstrong is one of my favorite writers, even if the books might seem a bit dated today; whenever I read another one of her novels I greatly enjoy it. Armstrong’s books were–I don’t know how to put this, but I am going to give it a try–were dark without darkness; there was always a sense of optimism in her books no matter how dark they got (there’s one particular scene in The Gift Shop that to this day rattles me when I think about it) and I do think she is overdue for a renaissance. It was the combined work of Jeffrey Marks and Sarah Weinman that reminded me of Armstrong and got me to go back and try to finish reading her canon; they also introduced me to Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar (among others).

The point is, women have always been some of the greatest writers in the crime genre, and societal and cultural sexism have gone a very long way to ensuring that the men who wrote in the same period as these ladies are now lauded as giants of the genre and must-reads, while the women–who won just as many awards and critical laurels and big sales–faded away into obscurity. Mary Higgins Clark was the bridge from these great women of the past to the modern women who write domestic suspense–and really, has there ever been a greater concept for a domestic suspense novel than Where are the Children?–but the second wave of major women crime writers primarily focused on private eye fiction (Sue Grafton, Marcia Muller, and Sara Paretsky).

But what the great Sarah Weinman calls “domestic suspense” never faded away; and nowadays we have some truly terrific women writing truly terrific novels in this subgenre–Lori Rader-Day, Catriona McPherson, Carol Goodman, Wendy Corsi Staub, Alafair Burke, and so many others–and it’s really become one of my absolute favorite subgenres, primarily because of the work these women are doing. It’s extraordinary; I cannot urge you enough to check out these women’s books, Constant Reader.

I could go on and on about these women and domestic suspense forever; but I’ll spare you and cut to the chase.

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“It was the girl.” The old man leaned forward, bracing against the worn-out armchair as though he were trying to escape its grasp. “April Cooper. She was the real killer.”

Quentin Garrison watched his face. He was very good at describing people, a skill he used all the time in his true crime podcasts. Later, recording the narration segments with his coproducer Summer Hawkins, Quentin would paint the picture for his listeners–the leathery skin, the white eyebrows wispy as cobwebs, the eyes, cerulean in 1976 but now the color of worn denim, and with so much pain bottled up behind them, as though he were constantly hovering on the brink of tears.

The man was named Reg Sharkey, and on June 20, 1976 , he’d watched his four-year-old daughter Kimmy die instantly of a gunshot wound to the chest–the youngest victim of April Cooper and Gabriel Allen LeRoy, aka the Inland Empire Killers. Two weeks later, his wife, Clara, had decided her own grief was too much to bear and committed suicide, after which Reg Sharkey had apparently given up on caring about anything or anyone.

Quentin said, “Wasn’t it LeRoy who pulled the trigger?”

Alison Gaylin has been nominated for the Edgar four times (Best First for Hide Your Eyes, Best PBO for both Into the Dark and If I Die Tonight, Best Novel for What Remains of Me)  and claimed the prize, just this past week, for If I Die Tonight. Her novels encompass a wide variety of subgenres; her first series featured an amateur sleuth; she then wrote two brilliant crime novels built around the entertainment industry; and then did the Brenna Spector trilogy: private eye novels that were, by and large, quite superb. All of her novels were superb, but once the Brenna trilogy was completed she moved on to stand-alones of psychological suspense that also crossover into the domestic suspense category; explorations of families and the dysfunction that leads to damaged people and possibly crimes. What Remains of Me was a throwback to  her earlier stand alone novels about the entertainment industry; only delving more deeply into the friendships and family relationships with the insightful eye of an artist. What Remains of Me juggled two time-lines and two murders; one committed in 1979 and another committed in the present–both linked and connected to the same woman, the same cast of characters, and the big reveal was stunning. If I Die Tonight was all set in the present day, but Gaylin’s family relationships in this novel are just as fractured and dysfunctional on every level; the concept Gaylin explored in this novel was public face private truth–the singular kernel of truth in this book being that things are so rarely what they appear to be in public, whereas the actual truth is far more complicated, far more complex, and far too often not what anyone actually wants to know.

Never Look Back also, like What Remains of Me, juggles two timelines; one in the past, which is expressed and explored through letters a teenaged girl writes to her future child, the other, a present where the aftermath of a brutal killing spree decades earlier by the teenaged girl writing the letters and the “boyfriend” who took her along for the ride; the notorious Inland Empire Killers. In the present day, a happily married gay man whose own childhood and family was actually shattered by the Inland Empire Killers, now works as an adult as a coproducer of true crime podcasts. The book opens with him confronting the father of the youngest victim of the killers–who also happens to be his grandfather, whom he doesn’t know. The interview ends badly, with bitterness and shouting and recriminations; Quentin blames his grandfather for his mother’s tragic, drug addicted, and wasted life, which in turn made his own childhood a mess. Quentin is now happily married…but driven by an obsession to get to the bottom of the killings so many decades ago.

And then comes the tip that April Cooper, the young girl writing the letters and the “Bonnie” to Gabriel LeRoy’s “Clyde”–might not have died in the fire which everyone believed killed them both; that she might actually be still alive and living in the Hudson Valley of New York.

This is a terrific premise, and Gaylin delivers in ways the reader cannot imagine as they ride the rollercoaster of suspense and emotion along with her characters. It’s an enormously satisfying read, with lots of juggled subplots and clues being left in the most casual of ways, so that the careful reader might even be able to figure out the truth long before the characters. Quentin is a terrific character, and so is Robin Diamond, the website  columnist whose mother might–or might not–hold the key to the answers Quentin is so driven to learn. The suspense and the twists are stunning, but the ending is powerful and enormously satisfying…and there’s not a single loose plot thread left behind.

Charlotte Armstrong was dubbed the Queen of Suspense by critics and reviewers during her lifetime; Alison Gaylin is a worthy heir to that title.

The book is available for preorder now; I’d advise you to do yourself a favor and preorder now. You aren’t going to want to miss this one.

Get Closer

Several years ago Gillian Flynn published a book that became a runaway bestseller and  was also turned an Oscar nominated film. I read Gone Girl within a few weeks of its release; I remember I was off to Killer Nashville and New Orleans was within the cone of uncertainty for a hurricane whose name I no longer remember. I started reading the book while sitting at my gate at Armstrong International, read it while I flew on Southwest to Nashville, and couldn’t wait to get checked into my hotel room so I could go upstairs, unpack my clothes and get into the bed and keep reading. It was an incredible ride, full of shocking twists and turns, and I also loved Flynn’s writing style. I’d already read and loved Sharp Objects, and the whole time I was reading Gone Girl I was thinking about stories and turns of phrase for my own work; I always think the best writers’ work is inspirational. As with anything that’s enormously popular, after a few months it became fashionable to mock the book and its influence on popular culture.

And like with everything, just as The Da Vinci Code opened the door for dozens and dozens of copycat thrillers with their stories firmly entrenched in actual history, Gone Girl opened the door for dozens of books that may not have been actually inspired by Flynn’s success, but the big publishers were all looking for “the next Gone Girl,” and I suspect many a book was signed based on a short elevator pitch along the lines of “more Gone Girl than Gone Girl.

There was the inevitable slew of books with girl or woman in their title in the publishing seasons after (although to be fair, Steig Larssen’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series preceded Gone Girl, as did Laura Lippman’s The Girl in the Green Raincoat, but Gone Girl is usually given credit for kicking off the trend), and what Sarah Weinman calls “domestic suspense” became the hot ticket in publishing, with even male bestselling suspense writers writing books from a female point of view–which I am all for, frankly; the tired misogynist trope that men’s stories are universal while women’s are contained is almost as tired as societal sexism.

So, when I get an ARC of Samantha Downing’s debut novel, My Lovely Wife, and saw lots of comparisons to Gone Girl I kind of just rolled my eyes and sat down to read.

Well.

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She is looking at me. Her blue eyes are glassy, they flicker down to her drink and back up. I look at my own drink and can feel her watching, wondering if I’m as interested as she is. I glance over and smile to show her I am,. She smiles back. Most of her lipstick is gone, now a reddish smear on the rim of her glass. I walk over and take the seat next to her.

She fluffs her hair. It is unremarkable in both color and length. Her lips move, she says hello, and her eyes are brighter. They look backlit.

Physically, I appeal to her the same way I would appeal to most women in this bar. I am thirty-nine, in excellent shape with a full head of hair and a deep set of dimples, and my suit fits better than any glove. That’s why she looked at me, why she smiled, why she is happy I have come over to join her. I am the man she has in mind.

I slide my phone across the bar toward her. It displays a message.

Hello. My name in Tobias.

And so begins the rollercoaster ride that is Samantha Downing’s superb debut novel. Downing introduces us first to her point of view character, the husband in this marriage, who is pretending to be deaf to pick up a woman in a bar. And from that moment on, the surprises and twists come very quickly; it seems sometimes as though every chapter has a new surprise that changes the story and how we view our main character.

You see, he is not only a successful tennis instructor with a gorgeous wife and two precocious children he adores…he and his wife get their kicks from picking out victims, stalking them, and then taking them prisoner for a while before finally killing them.

That’s how they keep their marriage fresh.

And Downing’s insidious genius is how well these sociopaths (psychopaths?) manage their careers and their family in their upscale gated community; they think they are great parents and are doing a great job with their kids…but that’s only part of the surprises in store for the reader.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. Samantha was the panel I moderated this past year at the Tennessee Williams Festival (joining me, Alafair Burke, and Kristien Hemmerichs), and quite frankly couldn’t put it down. I couldn’t have predicted any of the twists and turns and surprises in this book–and Downing does a great job of making the reader care about her incredibly unsympathetic characters…the ending is very tricky to pull off, but she managed.

I am looking forward to her next book.

Our Lips are Sealed

As Constant Reader is already aware (primarily because I can’t stop talking about it), I have a story in the upcoming anthology Murder-a-Go-Go’s, edited by the sublime Holly West and featuring an intro by the fabulous Jane Weidlin. As a huge fan of the Go-Go’s from the very first time I heard “Our Lips Are Sealed” on the radio of my car (I immediately bought their first album, Beauty and the Beat, on my next pay-day; it remains one of my all-time favorite albums. I also liked Vacation, just not as much…but Talk Show is also brilliant.

Another thing that is exciting for me about being in Murder-a-Go-Go’s is who I am sharing the table of contents with! Some of the best writers in the genre today! Woo-hoo!

And first up in the table of contents is Lori Rader-Day. Lori is currently an Edgar Award finalist for her Under a Dark Sky, and she was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award for her first three novels (The Black Hour, Pretty Little Things, The Day I Died); winning for Pretty Little Things. She has won the Anthony Award twice, and been a finalist for the Macavity and the Barry Awards. A most impressive resume, particularly given there are only four novels to her credit thus far. I personally enjoy Lori’s work; which probably would be best classified as domestic suspense, but I’m not sure that’s an accurate classification. Her works are, like Megan Abbott’s, about the darkness inside women and their friendships.

And her story was inspired by “Our Lips Are Sealed”!

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When the credits for the movie the girls weren’t supposed to be watching started to roll, Colbie went to check that her mother was asleep, stamping down on the hand of her sister, Alexa, on the way out. Alexa sat up and sniffled into her fist but kept silent with effort. On the floor, Jane and Patricia picked white flecks of popcorn out of the kernels left at the bottom of the bowl. Nori slipped into the bathroom with her pajamas balled up in her fist.

Jane watched her go. “I usually sleep naked.”

“Bullshit,” Patricia said. Jane was older, by almost a full year, already thirteen. But Patricia was taller. If she needed to, she would hold Jane down and force her to say she was a liar.

Colbie returned to the doorway with a six-pack of soda cradled in her arms. “My mom’s either dead or she took one of her pills. Where’s Nori?”

“Peeing,” Jane said. She picked at the chipped blue nail polish on her big toe, leaving a patch of paint on the pink carpet of Colbie’s room.

“Why didn’t you invite boys over? I went to a boy-girl sleepover when I was at my old school—”

Patricia snorted. “For church? That doesn’t count.”

“Let’s do something else,” Colbie said.

“Not a lock-in, bitch,” Jane said. “A sleepover. With boys.”

Patricia rolled her eyes at Colbie. Everything seemed to have already happened to Jane, but out of sight, at her old school, in her old town. She sometimes wanted to ask Jane why she didn’t just go back if everything was so great there. She was sure Jane would say she couldn’t because she was a kid. Which, for once, would be the truth. They were all stuck where they were, being who they were. Patricia turned to Colbie. “What should we do?”

Nori opened the bathroom door an inch. “You guys?”

And seriously, is there anything more noir than a tween girls sleepover? Lori does an excellent job here playing with the power dynamics in a group of girls; girls who are just starting to become women and how they deal with the changes in their bodies and how they relate to each other.

Definitely a great start to the book!

Nikita

I read a terrific piece about Mary Higgins Clark the other day; about how her books are really, at the barest bone, about how women cannot even truly trust men. It’s a terrific read, and I do think everyone should read this piece–draw your own conclusions. The brilliant Sarah Weinman then tweeted the piece, positing that she considers Clark the bridge between the domestic suspense thrillers of the past (writers like Dorothy B. Hughes, Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and scores of others) to the modern day women who are killing it in the crime fiction world. On that tweet thread, someone (I think Jeff Abbott?) brought up Phyllis A. Whitney.

Now, Phyllis A. Whitney is one of my favorite writers of all time. I first read her children’s/young adult mysteries (the first being The Secret of the Tiger’s Eye, which I checked out from the library at Eli Whitney Elementary School, after which I started tearing through them. Some were available through the Scholastic Book Club, others I got from the library. I loved them all because they were always set in far off places I wanted to visit–Tiger’s Eye taught me about South Africa and apartheid; The Mystery of the Hidden Hand taught me about Greece and the black market for antiquities, etc.

My mom let me join the Mystery Guild when I was eleven, and I was very thrilled and excited to see as one of the choices, a book by Phyllis A. Whitney, Listen for the Whisperer, and I added it to my choices, filling in the little white box with the correct item number. I was also, at this same time, going through my Hollywood period, reading biographies of movie stars and producers and histories of the film industry. So, you can imagine my thrill to discover that Listen for the Whisperer also was sort of about the film industry; the main character’s biological mother, had been a major Hollywood star, even winning an Oscar, when a scandal destroyed her career; her director was murdered one night on the film set of what would ultimately be her last film, a Gothic black-and-white suspense film called The Whisperer.

It was amazing. A romance and a thriller and a murder mystery, with a lot of Hollywood background to it, it’s remained one of my favorite books of all time, and always makes any list I make of books that were important and/or formative to me.

I soon began tearing through her backlist: Thunder Heights, Seven Tears for Apollo, Blue Fire, Black Amber, Skye Cameron, The Trembling Hills, Silverhill, The Winter People, The Quicksilver Pool, Lost Island, The Moonflower, Sea Jade, Columbella, and Hunter’s Green. Mrs. Whitney continued producing work for almost another twenty years, and I read those books as they were released in paperback, later getting them as they were originally released in hardcover: Snowfire, The Turquoise Mask, The Golden Unicorn, The Glass Flame, Spindrift, Rainbow in the Mist, Woman without a Past, and Vermilion, among many others. Like her teen books, the adult novels also were often set in exotic places which Mrs. Whitney described perfectly, and you learned a little something about the places as you read about them. I also began to realize that when Mrs. Whitney went on one of her research trips, she often wrote two books set there–one for kids, and another for adults.

But the primary difference, I think, between Mary Higgins Clark and Phyllis Whitney is this: if, as the article I read (and linked to) is correct, Ms. Clark’s message is a woman can’t trust any man, then Mrs. Whitney’s was a woman can’t trust anyone, ESPECIALLY not family.

Mrs. Whitney’s books were often, not always, about a young woman trying to either obtain closure (like meeting the birth mother she never knew in Listen for the Whisperer, or confronting her estranged husband who finally wants a divorce after several years of separation in Hunter’s Green, or seeking a relationship with the child she gave up in Lost Island) or trying to get to know a family she’s never met or knew existed (Silverhill, Woman without a Past, Thunder Heights, Sea Jade). 

You couldn’t trust anyone in a Whitney novel; sometimes her killers were actually women.

A common trope in Whitney’s work was also the bad girl, who was often either married to, or engaged to, the love interest for the main character; and frequently, particularly in her earlier works, the bad girl wound up as the murder victim (Columbella, Lost Island). There was almost always a “bad girl” archetype in these books; a beautiful, sexually free woman who refused to be a submissive wife, and was sometimes, quite frankly, a nasty bitch to the main character (The Turquoise Mask, Vermilion) but eventually came over the heroine’s side and thus survived the story.

Here’s a list of all her novels (you can see, she was very prolific and her career lasted over fifty years; often publishing more than one book per year–and remember, she had to use a typewriter):

  • A Place for Ann (1941)
  • A Star for Ginny (1942)
  • A Window for Julie (1943)
  • Red is for Murder (1943), Reissued as The Red Carnelian (1965)
  • The Silver Inkwell (1945)
  • Writing Juvenile Fiction (1947)
  • Willow Hill (1947)
  • Ever After (1948)
  • The Mystery of the Gulls (1949)
  • Linda’s Homecoming (1950)
  • The Island of Dark Woods (1951), Reissued as Mystery of the Strange Traveler (1967)
  • Love Me, Love Me Not (1952)
  • Step to the Music (1953)
  • Mystery of the Black Diamonds (1954)
  • A Long Time Coming (1954)
  • Mystery on the Isle of Skye (1955)
  • The Quicksilver Pool (1955)
  • The Fire and the Gold (1956)
  • The Highest Dream (1956)
  • The Trembling Hills (1956)
  • Mystery of the Green Cat (1957)
  • Skye Cameron (1957)
  • Secret of the Samurai Sword (1958)
  • The Moonflower (1958)
  • Creole Holiday (1959)
  • Mystery of the Haunted Pool (1960)
  • Thunder Heights (1960)
  • Secret of the Tiger’s Eye (1961)
  • Blue Fire (1961)
  • Mystery of the Golden Horn (1962)
  • Window on the Square (1962)
  • Mystery of the Hidden Hand (1963)
  • Seven Tears for Apollo (1963)
  • Secret of the Emerald Star (1964)
  • Black Amber (1964)
  • Mystery of the Angry Idol (1965)
  • Sea Jade (1965)
  • Columbella (1966)
  • Secret of the Spotted Shell (1967)
  • Silverhill (1967)
  • Hunter’s Green (1968)
  • Secret of Goblin Glen (1969)
  • The Mystery of the Crimson Ghost (1969)
  • The Winter People (1969)
  • Secret of the Missing Footprint (1969)
  • Lost Island (1970)
  • The Vanishing Scarecrow (1971)
  • Nobody Likes Trina (1972)
  • Listen for the Whisperer (1972)
  • Mystery of the Scowling Boy (1973)
  • Snowfire (1973)
  • The Turquoise Mask (1974)
  • Secret of Haunted Mesa (1975)
  • Spindrift (1975)
  • The Golden Unicorn (1976)
  • Writing Juvenile Stories and Novels (1976)
  • Secret of the Stone Face (1977)
  • The Stone Bull (1977)
  • The Glass Flame (1978)
  • Domino (1979)
  • Poinciana (1980)
  • Vermilion (1981)
  • Guide to Fiction Writing (1982)
  • Emerald (1983)
  • Rainsong (1984)
  • Dream of Orchids (1985)
  • Flaming Tree (1986)
  • Silversword (1987)
  • Feather on the Moon (1988)
  • Rainbow in the Mist (1989)
  • The Singing Stones (1990)
  • Woman Without a Past (1991)
  • The Ebony Swan (1992)
  • Star Flight (1993)
  • Daughter of the Stars (1994)
  • Amethyst Dreams (1997)

She won two Edgars for her mysteries for children, and was eventually named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America.

I did sometimes get frustrated with her heroines for being more wimpy than they needed to be; usually, though, the course of the novel allowed her heroines to become more confident in themselves as well as to work through whatever neuroses they had at the start of the novel. And like I said, a common theme was damaged families. Her books, along with those of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart, were labelled as romantic suspense, but I think female noir is actually a better label for them; and as an adult, I really don’t think Stewart’s books actually are romantic suspense…but that’s a topic for another time.

And now, back to the spice mines.

freddie stroma

Our House

..in the middle of our street.

We will not be discussing the embarrassment that was last night’s LSU “game.”

Friends are in town, and we had lunch with them at Commander’s Palace yesterday, which was lovely. I didn’t read the menu carefully and got something that had fried eggs on the top–which ran with yolk when you broke it; shudder–but I simply pushed them away with my fork and ate everything else. I was very tired after that, and came home, worked for a little while, and then curled up with Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret. I had read Big Little Lies concurrently with watching the HBO series, and enjoyed both the book and the show, so wanted to read another one of her novels. I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting with this one–the jacket blurb mentioned that a wife finds a sealed envelope addressed to her from her husband, with the words To be opened only in the event of my death.

I would have opened it immediately, of course.

the husband's secret

It was all because of the Berlin Wall.

If it weren’t for the Berline Wall, Cecilia would never have found the letter, and then she wouldn’t be sitting here, at the kitchen table, willing herself not to rip it open.

The envelope was gray with a fine layer of dust. The words on the front were written in a scratchy blue ballpoint pen, the handwriting as familiar as her own. She turned it over. It was sealed with a yellowing piece of sticky tape. When was it written? It felt old, like it was written years ago, but there was no way  of knowing for sure.

She wasn’t going to open it. It was absolutely clear that she should not open it. She was the most decisive person she knew, and she’d already decided not to open the letter, so there was nothing more to think about.

Although, honestly, if she did open it, what would be the big deal? Any woman would open it like a shot. She listed all her friends and what their responses would be if she were to ring them up right now and ask what they thought.

Liane Moriarty is compulsively readable. And that’s not a quality in an author that should be dismissed lightlyAs I mentioned the other day with Louise Penny, it’s hard to classify Moriarty’s work; there’s a crime involved, but is it really crime fiction? I’m not sure it’s marketed that way; this book has a jacket blurb from Anne Lamott, for example, rather than Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky. She is an enormous bestseller; which is no small feat for an Australian writer to accomplish in the United States, particularly when she is writing about Australia (although Colleen McCullough was quite successful in the US with The Thorn Birds, before she turned to ancient Rome). She structures her books around three women as the main characters; and she writes about the issues that concern women–I suppose, in a way, her novels could be classified as modern domestic suspense. Like the previous masters of domestic suspense (a classification title I am still not entirely convinced I like), she writes about every day women thrust into extraordinary situations, and she also shoehorns in some brilliant social commentary along with social issues, like Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong and Dorothy B. Hughes did. The books are, as I said, compulsively readable and hard to set aside until you’ve reached the end.

Women writers, no matter their success, are rarely taken as seriously as male writers. I’m not sure if it’s because women writers tend to focus on women and issues that affect them while men, in theory, tackle larger themes. Male characters written by men are off saving the world in genre fiction, bedding fabulous babes and getting into fistfights, surviving by their skills or because their masculinity is superior to that of the bad guys. Or the male characters are finding dissatisfaction and misery in their maleness (I’m looking at you, literary fiction), prisoners of societal expectations of manliness and resenting putting aside their fantasy of what their life should be and having to settle for something that is less than that fantasy. Rarely do you find male characters (I’m not saying they don’t exist, so don’t come after me; I am fully cognizant of the fact that these are all incredibly broad generalizations) who are struggling with the work/home balance, juggling having to have a career and an income with finding time to be participants in their children’s lives or even, for that matter, simply helping around the house.

Men do not drive the story in Liane Moriarty’s novels, but they do impact it. They serve as catalysts for her stories, but her books are about the women whose lives are impacted by the men in them.

The Husband’s Secret,  like Big Little Lies, tells the story of three women whose lives intersect due to a private grammar school, St. Agatha’s in Sydney. Rachel is the aging part-time school secretary, widowed and haunted by the unsolved murder of her teenaged daughter many years before. The loss of her daughter has embittered her, and the only thing she basically has to live for is her grandson. Her story is set into motion when the perfect daughter-in-law she doesn’t much like and her son tell her that Lauren, the daughter-in-law, is being sent by her company to New York for two years, taking the only thing in her life she cares about–the grandson–away from her; just as her daughter was taken from her some twenty-five years or so earlier.

Tess’ world has just been ripped apart by the announcement by her husband and her best friend/first cousin that they are in love and want to be together–but out of respect for her having consummated the relationship. Her cousin, Felicity, is like a sister to her; their mothers were twins and they were born within days of each other. Felicity also used to be overweight; over the past year she has lost weight and become beautiful. Tess, betrayed and hurt, uses her mother’s recent accident in which she broke her ankle as an excuse to grab her son Liam and leave Melbourne, returning to Sydney to sort out her life and her future–enrolling young Liam in St. Agatha’s.

Cecilia, the third woman, is like Madeline in Big Little Lies; married, highly competent and efficient, the organizer that winds up running everything and basically being Supermom. She married a handsome rich man, and they have three daughters together. She’s hardly as confident as she seems; it’s a veneer to protect her and hide her own insecurities as she ruthlessly organizes her life and tries to put the world in order–one of those people who are basically exhausting to talk to; who leave you tired and drained when you finish speaking with them and you aren’t sure why.

Their lives intersect primarily because of the letter Cecilia finds in her attic, although Tess is less involved with the other two women, only peripherally floating into their orbit through the school, but the book’s theme is grief and motherhood and how these three different and incredibly complex women deal with both. What sacrifices do mothers have to make for their children, and what do they owe themselves? What is too far, too much, and where do you draw the line? Rachel’s life was decimated by her daughter’s murder and the lack of a conclusion to the story; to the extent that she walled herself up away from the rest of her family, and her relationship with her son has suffered–it is only through the events of this book that she finally realizes that her son is suffering not only from the loss of his sister and the loss of his father but from the loss of his mother. What does Tess owe to her young son in the wake of the apparent end of her marriage, and the horrific betrayal by her husband and her cousin? Does she try to ride out this love affair, rise above her own hurt and anger and put her child first? Is it better for Liam if she ends the marriage or tries to get past everything and forgive him, if that’s the option? She also is forced to take a long hard look at her own life at who she is and who has become as a person, and who does she want to become?

Cecilia’s journey is, of course, the most shattering. Her husband’s secret, contained in the letter, turns her world upside down and inside out; nothing is what she thought it was, what she believed, and she too is faced with a horrible choice: any decision she makes is going to be incredibly difficult to live with–but what can she live with for the sake of her daughters?

There is some reader manipulation; it’s important for the narrative that Cecilia not read the letter until a certain point, and when she does, the chapter ends with her starting to read–which felt unfair, particularly as the book shifted to another viewpoint in the next chapter. It would have been just as effective, I thought, for the text of the letter to appear and not show Cecilia’s reaction before shifting to the other viewpoint; that’s the editorial and/or authorial I would have made. It just kind of felt manipulative.

The book is very clever, certainly smart–I enjoy the way Moriarty writes, and she has a great way of finding the word rhythm that works, slightly altering those patterns as she shifts from viewpoint to viewpoint to give the reader a stronger sense of the character and their voice; a nice hat trick which is not easy to pull off. The decisions the women make–all affected by the letter Cecilia finds–may not be happily ever afters, but are all things they can, they find, live with. They can go on, they can endure, they can survive.

And maybe that is a happily ever after, after all.

After finishing this, I started reading Lisa Unger’s In the Blood, which immediately grabbed my interest; it was hard to put it down in order to get sleep.

And now, back to the spice mines.