This monsoon, I’ve been in the mood for twisted books. Books about missing teenagers, mutilated bodies, serial killers, and humans that stretch the boundaries of evil. This was after a brief break I took from reading – before which I was nose deep into a serial killer series called Stillhouse Lake and a book of real-world crime stories called Detective Diaries.
Do you see a pattern? I did. But instead of psychoanalyzing why being stuck at home is driving me towards disturbing books, I sought out and devoured five books about monstrous people, back to back.
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When Angela Wong, the most popular girl in school, disappears no one suspects that her best friend Georgina Shaw might be involved. But fourteen years later, Angela’s remains are found in Geo’s backyard. Just when Geo thinks she has paid her dues for her horrible lie, new bodies turn up at the same spot. Running away from her past is not going to work anymore.
At the heart of this story is a messed up teenage friendship. Jennifer Hillier has captured perfectly the angst and the insecurities of being a teenager and the conflict of genuinely caring for and resenting the popular friend that overshadows you. She has also pulled off the impossible task of making you root for someone who is dishonest, without a moral compass and pure evil, at times.
We know who murdered Angela right from the first chapter but we don’t know why. The mystery is not a whodunnit but a ‘what happened exactly?’ Yet, the story structure – the different timelines and points of view – kept me hooked. The only let down for me was the rushed ending and the sappy epilogue.
Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Twenty years ago Claire Scott’s eldest sister, Julia, went missing. No one knew where she went – no note, no body. It was a mystery that was never solved and it tore her family apart. Now another girl has disappeared, with chilling echoes of the past. And it seems that she might not be the only one. Claire is convinced Julia’s disappearance is linked. But when she begins to learn the truth about her sister, she is confronted with a shocking discovery, and nothing will ever be the same.
The disappearance of Julia tears the Carroll family apart leaving the four remaining family members seeking self-destruction in various ways. For Lydia Carroll, the second sister, it is drugs and alcohol. For Claire Carroll, the third sister, it takes the form of a boy. The mother is determined to move past it but the father cannot. This family dynamics and the letters to Julia written by a grieving father were the best parts of the book for me.
The story begins with a mugging gone wrong, but little did I know that it was the mellowest of all crimes that takes place in this book. Pretty Girls is the most gruesome book in this list (when the author’s name is Karin Slaughter, what do you expect?). Unlike the others where the heart-stopping moments were few and far between, this one turns up the dial on discomfort early on and keeps you on your toes constantly.
I Am Watching You by Teresa Driscoll
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
When Ella Longfield overhears two attractive young men flirting with teenage girls on a train, she thinks nothing of it—until she realises they are fresh out of prison and her maternal instinct is put on high alert. But just as she’s decided to call for help, something stops her. The next day, she wakes up to the news that one of the girls—beautiful, green-eyed Anna Ballard—has disappeared. Someone knows where Anna is—and they’re not telling. But they are watching Ella.
This book is two interconnected mysteries in one: Anna’s disappearance and the titular mystery of someone watching Ella. The latter mystery has such a lacklustre resolution that made me wonder if its only function was misdirection. Another jarring thing about this book is that the narrative voice is in first person for Ella but third person for all the other POV characters. This didn’t bother me at first because I thought it had a point. But in the end, it served no other purpose than to throw off readers by making it seem like it had a purpose. Deliberate deception and misdirection is an important part of any mystery novel. However, Teresa Driscoll has taken it to an extreme.
There were just too many characters with secrets to keep track of and they were not compelling enough to make me want to care about them. This book was a case of good premise let down by bad execution.
The Boy from the Woods by Harlan Coben
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Wilde is a mystery to everyone, including himself. Decades ago, he was found as a boy living feral in the woods, with no memory of his past. After the police concluded an exhaustive hunt for the child’s family, which was never found, he was turned over to the foster system. Now, thirty years later, a local girl goes missing and famous TV lawyer Hester Crimstein–with whom Wilde shares a tragic connection–asks him to use his unique skills to help find her. Meanwhile, a group of ex-military security experts arrive in town. When another teen disappears, the case’s impact expands far beyond the borders of the peaceful suburb putting the lives of millions at stake.
This book started off strong – a bullied girl goes missing and a recluse is tasked with finding her. In the process, readers get a peek into the lives of the ultra rich who have the power to affect millions of people. I was very impressed by how masterfully Harlan Coben interwove the high stakes nature of a national election with the relatively low stakes of missing teens. But the low stakes mystery ended up being so much more interesting to me.
The problem I had with this book was Coben’s determination to make all characters other than the MCs (Wilde and Hester who are saints) morally grey. All the good guys have a bad side and all the bad guys have a good side. It ended up taking the edge off of the evil characters and making them bland. I get the whole black/white/grey thing but I want variety and extremes in my characters – not a bunch of them cut from the same moral cloth.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect until she shoots her husband five times in the face, and then never speaks another word. Her refusal to talk turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him.
“We’re all crazy, I believe, just in different ways.”
The silent patient has such a spellbinding premise that I kept putting off reading it in spite of its popularity because I was worried that execution can never do justice to the premise. In a way, I was right. When the plot and the resolution are separated from the prose, the book is only a middling mystery. But I was too enchanted by the beauty of the writing to care.
I don’t think I have ever wanted the plot to move more slowly before. Nor have I wanted to spend more time reading about a depressing mental institution. I wanted to hold on to the writing and savour it so much that I would not have cared if the mystery of Alicia’s silence was never solved.
Inspite of my best efforts, the book ended. When there were no more fascinating insights into the human psyche to distract me, I paid attention to the actual story. But the resolution was, sadly, not as flawless as the prose.
“Somehow grasping at vanishing snowflakes is like grasping at happiness: an act of possession that instantly gives way to nothing. It reminded me that there was a world outside this house: a world of vastness and unimaginable beauty; a world that for now, remained out of my reach. That memory had repeatedly returned to me over the years. It’s as if the misery that surrounded that brief moment of freedom made it burn even brighter: a tiny light surrounded by darkness.”
So there you have it. Did you find anything interesting? What books should I pick up next? Let me know!