One of Us Is Lying – A re-take on The Breakfast Club

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did *was* wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.
– The Breakfast Club (1985)

One of us is lying is truly a tribute to The Breakfast Club, except with dashes of contemporary thriller dramas (it’s being marketed as The Breakfast Club meets Pretty Little Liars, and it’s not wrong there). Just like the characters in The Breakfast Club, five characters who fit a high-school stereotype each are thrown together in a detention class, albeit with a darker twist to this version.
Just look at the blurb – it says it all really:

Pay close attention and you might solve this.
On Monday afternoon, five students at Bayview High walk into detention.
Bronwyn, the brain, is Yale-bound and never breaks a rule.
Addy, the beauty, is the picture-perfect homecoming princess.
Nate, the criminal, is already on probation for dealing.
Cooper, the athlete, is the all-star baseball pitcher.
And Simon, the outcast, is the creator of Bayview High s notorious gossip app.
Only, Simon never makes it out of that classroom. Before the end of detention Simon’s dead. And according to investigators, his death wasn’t an accident.

And just like the film itself, each character is not who they seem – the beautiful bimbo is actually n sympathetic, intelligent teenager, the jock doesn’t really have it all, and so it continues. In the middle of it all is the murder mystery which the characters are all thrown into – with narration from each character’s perspectives, there’s plenty of subtle clues, but it’s not easy at all to guess the culprit in this whodunnit.

I’ll admit, the premise had me interested from the start, but what really kept me reading was how well-developed the characters are – there’s lots of drama, hidden secrets and emotional topics which are dealt with wonderfully with the author. I felt like this was a modern-day Breakfast Club, but with added facets of LGBT, drugs and peer pressure which is very relevant in today’s high-schools and society. I also liked how smart this story is – as a premise it sounds a little clichéd, but it works because the characters are pretty fleshed-out, their relationships with each other feel genuine, and there’s the added effect that  as we get to know each character, there’s always a doubt about them. While we analyse them, get to know and like them, we are always still wondering who the murderer in this story is.

I can’t say that the ending of this novel came with a total bang (as an avid reader of murder mysteries, I did guess the culprit!) but it’s a great story, especially for a debut novel. What stays with me in this story surprisingly wasn’t the murder plot, but the incredibly sweet image of the characters supporting each other as they grow up in this story.

One of us is Lying will be released on 1st June 2017 and was sent to me by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Unexpected Elephants and Moustache’d Inspectors

On the day that he was due to retire, Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant.

And thus starts a novel which takes Inspector Chopra on a journey which no one could have expected at all. Full of murder, conspiracy, domestic dramas in the complex they live in and a cute little elephant, this novel has it all. This novel was recommended to me by a friend who thought I would like it, and I’m glad she did – it reminded me of a lot of things in different way which made me enjoy the story all the more. There’s scenes of the manly hero, Inspector Chopra chasing the ‘baddies’ through meandering roads and hiding in warehouses a la Bollywood style (albeit the 60s and 70s action movies kind). There’s conspiracies, corruption and secrets, with the weak poor classes against the corrupt rich. And at the heart of it all is the focus of traditional values and the importance of honesty.

The story also reminds me a little of another detective series, Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which has the similarities of infusion of local culture, wonderfully drawn characters and quirky, gentle humour. The story follows the retirement of Inspector Chopra in the richly-described Mumbai, following two mysterious cases; firstly the inheritance of a baby elephant left to him by a loved uncle for reasons unknown, and secondly the drowning of a young man whose death is suspicious, yet keeps being brushed under the carpet. With this, Inspector Chopra’s retirement suddenly feels too peaceful and boring, and the hero is led to investigate on his own, leading him to more serious issues like the corruption of the upper-classes, the activism of lower classes for more rights, into the dark Underworld and slums.

The story is quirky and whimsical enough that there are a few sweet, silly lines which keep the story entertaining, although there are also more serious issues which are given their space, which balance the story well. This isn’t a serious, thriller-type crime novel, but it is a story which draws you into the busy, colourful world of Mumbai and see it through the eyes of a native. This is something which feels a little more old-fashioned, quietly showing us the story yet charming, the characters are very likeable, such as the sub-plot of the Inspector’s marriage with his feisty wife Poppy (and her mother!), and the impact of the baby elephant on all of their lives.

I really enjoyed this novel, if only because I loved the story is brought together, the two mysteries running alongside each other, with the colourful voice of Mumbai, street-life and the gentle humour which gives this story the whimsical touch. There are some who have said that this story isn’t credible, or even very original, but I think that it’s hard to depict the characters and city-life of India the way this story has, and it has been quite well done. I’m already looking forward to the next in the series on my book reader, and I’ll wait to see if the baby elephant is still in the next novel!

Death, Memory and Scars Among Yellow Flowers

“Snow White poisoned. Cinderella enslaved. Rapunzel locked up. Tessie, dumped with bones. Some monster’s twisted fantasy,”

“I am the Cartwright girl, dumped once upon a time with a strangled college student and a stack of human bones out past Highway 10, in an abandoned patch of field near the Jenkins property. I am the star of screaming tabloid headlines and campfire ghost stories. I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans. The lucky one.”

Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin follows Tessa (no longer ‘Tessie’, a name which has been abandoned along with her childhood innocence), lone surviving victim of a serial killer who dumped her along with three other dead girls, buried amongst the yellow flowers known as ‘Black-eyed Susans’, which also becomes their moniker. Hindered by her memory loss surrounding the incident, Tessa struggles to pinpoint who has done this to her, working through therapy and recovering with help of her best friend Lydia, but all the while unsure about what happened leading up to the time she was found and why she was chosen.

Now, 17 years later, Tessa’s doubts grow heavier about the man apprehended and serving on death-row for the crime, especially as the deadline for his black eyed susansexecution approaches. Re-examining the facts which don’t seem to add up, she re-counts the times that someone has planted Black-eyed Susans flower around her home, left there for her to find, as well as potential clues she has found and kept over the years. Now an adult with a teenaged daughter of her own, Tessa goes back to her memories and looks back with an adult mind, working with the police and with new DNA and forensic methods to find out if the right man really was caught, or if she is still in danger.

I’m not usually a big fan of the flashback method but in this case it works, the two narratives of Tessa at 17 after her abduction weaved with the perspective of Tessa in present time 17 years later work well together. The flashbacks are not prolonged or dragged out, and serve to heighten the anticipation as Tessa slowly unravels the mystery in both time periods.

Filled with intense, eccentric and interesting characters, the novel is a well-crafted one, making the mystery pulled together by not only the characters but their backgrounds and their stories. There’s Tessa’s  grandfather with his morbid fascination with death, fairy-tale stories and a giant, almost grotesque castle of a house; her best friend Lydia, a highly intelligent young girl who supports Tessa with witticisms and poetry, yet is fascinated by death, celebrity gossip murder cases and eccentric parts of history, Tessa’s own daughter Charlie, wiser than her years and cool in the face of Tessa’s fears; and of course their scatty elderly neighbour Effie, a quirky, brilliant scientist who can’t cook and is worried about someone stealing all the diggers in the neighbourhood.

I won’t agree with critics who say this is for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – although it may perhaps have a touch of the same dark mystery of Dark Places by the same author, which follows a woman looking for answers about her family’s massacre. The book is one that slowly creeps up on the reader, intense but well-researched, combining the psychological with facts about forensics. For those who like thrillers and mystery, this is a good pick although be prepared for a slower unravelling of the story rather than fast-paced action.

Although I wasn’t entirely too satisfied with the ending of this novel, it is a good one, and there is enough of the unexpected if you don’t spot the hints along the way. Heaberlin has an ability to create characters which, although flawed, are interesting ones – Tessa herself is a myriad of emotions and but her growth from scarred teenager to a stable, confident woman and mother is admirable. This is a satisfyingly creepy and compelling story, almost a twist on a dark fairytale which leads you through to new questions with each new answer given – but definitely a thriller to remember.

 

The Murder of Snow White

“Skin as white as snow, hair as black as ebony and lips as red as blood.”

At first glance, Nele Neuhaus’ bestselling novel now Snow White Must Die seems to be a typical thriller, one full of tense narrative, dramatic conspiracies and elaborate wrongdoings – and I suppose, in a way, it is. But there is nothing of the American, stylized, sensational thriller in this novel – it’s dark , mysterious and depressing, but it’s also very human, and has nothing of the cold, easy solutions wrapped up in the usual whodunnits.

Translated from Neuhaus’ native German, the story issnowwhitemustdie one that creeps up on you as you get deeper into it, and the narrative trickles into several voices and characters, with a few sub-plots, different timelines, flash-backs which are seen in different perspectives, as well as a twisting storyline which is actually quite believable.

I’ll admit, I love my murder mysteries and thrillers, although a lot of the ones I seem to read these days are either junk-book-style or good ole’ Agatha Christy, who, as much as I love her , becomes a little predictable once you’ve read all of her books (it’s never the butler who did it, it’s usually the secretary).

Set in a small village in present-day Germany, the plot begins with a tragedy that has already taken place a decade earlier. Newly-released from prison, Tobias Sartorius returns to his home town after serving eleven years in prison for the conviction of murdering two girls, the beautiful Stefanie, dubbed Snow White, and ex-girlfriend Laura, both missing in mysterious circumstances which no one, including Tobias himself, have ever figured out. The bodies of both girls have never been found, and the village has never quite recovered from the shadows of the murder, shaping the inhabitants in ways which have changed them.

Meanwhile, Detective Inspector Pia Kirchhoff and DS Oliver von Bodenstein are in charge of a new case, that of a discovery of some bones dug up in a nearby quarry, thus re-opening suspicions about what really happened on the night of the double homicide. As the village inhabitants close ranks and remain tight-lipped about what they know, and the atmosphere in the tight-knit community becomes more and more strained, it becomes apparent that there is a something much more complicated going on, and suspicions that perhaps Tobias isn’t really the guilty party. Through random acts of violent, heartbreaking revenge, the false veneers of the deceiving behaviour of the villagers, and the arrival of a young girl called Amelie (who resembles the missing Snow White), it is clear that although Tobias has served his time, there are still plenty of secrets leftover, and plenty of people willing to go far to keep them.

Nele Nauhaus’ book has taken the book world by storm, and after reading it, I wasn’t surprised it had. I initially thought this was going to be a typical, dumbed-down mystery, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t – if anything, it twists several strands of genres to be more than just a typical murder mystery. It reminded me also of popular Danish series The Killing, a gritty, depressing and well-written drama which also follows several characters in the aftermath of murder. Snow White Must Die is similar in style, and in successfully creating an atmosphere which stays long after the book has ended. As one reviewer put very well, “Neuhaus is terrific at creating the complex claustrophobia of a village where the same families have lived for generations” – there’s a real sense of right and wrong being muddied, and loyalties being blurred and confused.

What I loved most about this book is that it evokes an era unique to the village and to German culture – I’m used to very English settings, American pop culture and even the usual fast-pace of thrillers and murder mysteries – but this is different, showing the livelihoods of the villagers, the close-knit community and the law and justice in this village. The end of this novel leaves the reader thinking about not only the butterfly effect of one night which ripples out into the present; but also the fact that there’s no clichéd concept of the ‘hero’ and the ‘villain’, all have been touched and damaged by the tragedy, and all have to confront the truth when it is revealed. It is certainly a good read, and one which draws you into the lives of more than one character, but it may not appeal to everyone – it is gritty and it is depressing, and there is no easy solution at its end. It draws home the fact that there is a petty, ugly side to everyone, that in the ordinary and mundane there can also be jealousy, deceit and misplaced loyalty which can  lead to something more sinister. I would definitely recommend this as something to try even if you don’t usually read murder mysteries – the characters will draw you in and there’s even a slight touch of The Count of Monte Cristo about it which resonates.

“Physician steal thyself” – A Doctor Disappears

Richard T. Kelly’s ‘The Possessions of Doctor Forrest‘ implies, at first, a straightforwardly ordinary, although puzzling tale. The novel’s central character is a Scottish cosmetic surgeon, who, from its very opening, has gone missing – much to the concern of two of his closest friends. And the clues he has left behind are sparse, leaving not much insight into his lifestyle, the people he loved, or the possible reasons for his disappearance. But this is a horror story, and one which creeps up on you slowly, and Kelly creates a eerie atmosphere which leaves both the readers and the doctor’s friends unsure about what has happened, but very aware that something is very wrong. drforrest

Always throughout this nove, is some form of reference to an Other, a supernatural influence in the story, which the grounded best friends are unable to accept with their sceptical minds, yet they are unable to ignore that fact there are surreal acts at play which cannot simply be explained away. As they begin to delve into their old friend Doctor Forrest’s life, they begin to realise how his personality is but a mere mask for his real feelings and intentions, and hides a persona they never knew.

And of course, as with these revelations come the Faustian motif – as life, youth and eternity which are constantly being examined are valued, so is emphasised the price that needs to be paid – a theme of life and death which are always inevitably coupled. Doctor Forrest’s secrets and his thirst for more in life are slowly unravelled, layers of which lie with the various encounters he has with people and with relationships he has with not only them, but with the journeys he takes to reach his ambitions.

And of course, as with these revelations come the Faustian motif – as life, youth and eternity which are constantly being examined are valued, so is emphasised the price that needs to be paid – a theme of life and death which are always inevitably coupled. Doctor Forrest’s secrets and his thirst for more in life are slowly unravelled, layers of which lie with the various encounters he has with people and with relationships he has with not only them, but with the journeys he takes to reach his ambitions.

Without giving too much away, suffice to say that Doctor Forrest and his companions are slowly drawn into the world of mystique, darkness and the supernatural. And just as the disappearance of the doctor is not explained away simply, nor is his descent into his final destination any less complex. There are familiar gothic literary devices peppered throughout, the use of landscape to create an eerie atmosphere, the symbolism of blood, the theme of isolation throughout the novel, and so on.

The Possessions of Doctor Forrest is not a novel which rushes, it builds up tension gradually, reflected through the prisms of each narrator’s concerns, as family-men, career-men and as spiritualists. While the settings are of a modern landscape, that of present-day Scotland and London, the behaviours of the characters and the feelings which are emanated feel classic and timeless – that of the idea of sin, of wanting to live forever, of love and of what it means to be man. This novel harks back to the styles of classic novels, that of Dorian Gray, Dracula and Frankenstein, where the quest to be something greater is bound up with not only the spooky supernatural, but the premise of man’s fallacy and the inevitability of choices which must be made.

Or, as one blogger summed up:

 “The Possessions of Doctor Forrest” wears its learning lightly, and creates something dark, modern and terrifying from it. Brilliant.”

A Mathematical Genius, An Unspoken Love and the Art of Alibis

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”

– Galileo Galilei

Keigo Higashino’s first novel to be translated into the English language depicts a murder plot, but not as far as conventional murder mysteries are followed. With an almost frank, easy narrative, the novel shows from its start who has committed the murder – but this fact is almost inconsequential to the plot itself. The intrigue of the novel hinges, rather, on how the main character Yasusko, with the assistance of her neighbour Ishigami, manages to get away with her crime, and the twists which ensue as a result. So begins a battle of brains, as mathematics genius Ishigami constructs elaborate strategies, careful alibis and red herrings to throw off the police force. However, always close at his heels is his old university alumni and friend, the scientist Yukawa along with the detective Kusanagi, who carefully unpick and unravel the discrepancies they find, always playing a game of psychological cat and mouse.

Interspersed between the academia of Tokyo, its homeless inhabitants and shanty towns, and the glamour of night clubs and evening hostesses, Higashino mixes the ordinary domestic setting of contemporary Japan with the undercurrents of the darker side of human traits, as well as exploring how far boundaries can be pushed. While there are some characters who are placed into almost typecast roles; Yusoko as the beautiful, reserved ex-hostess-come-lunchshop-worker, unaware of her own beauty, her angst-ridden teenaged daughter, the adoring admirer Mr Kudo and even Togashi, the malicious ex-husband placed into a ‘villain’ role, the other characters in the novel are far less easy to pigeonhole.

The intrigue of The Devotion of Suspect X lies primarily with the character of Ishigami, a mathematical genius who becomes the novel’s anti-hero. Logical, clinical, and the subject of the book’s title, his “devotion” to his neighbour Yasuko ensures that his role is not as black and white as it may appear. Initially being introduced as a quiet, unemotional man who teaches high school maths to school-children, Ishigami’s lonely and unassuming lifestyle is abruptly interrupted when his silent, one-sided romance fantasy for Yusoko, the single mother who lives next-door to him, erupts into real-life drama, evoking his protective instincts to protect both mother and daughter. Thus the novel intensifies into a clever psychological novel, as Ishigami tries to outwit the police while simultaneously attempting to continue his fantasised romance with Yusoko. While Ishigami becomes, to all extents and purposes, Yusoko’s accomplice in her crime, the likeability of his character and his cool, calm logic gives a depth to his character which not only makes him the most interesting of all the characters, but shows how his relentless plotting and fierce loyalty makes him “an adversary to be feared”.

And yet his brilliant genius and his detached outlook in life makes him a very isolated figure, alienated from his bleak surroundings and unable to escape the mediocrity of life, aware that he is part of the “cogs of society” as equally as he wishes to escape from it. The poetic irony of a math genius teaching bored school children with no desire to learn best epitomises Ishigami’s anxiety; each party are trapped in their individual boredom, and yet forced by society to play their part. It is this kind of characterisation which allows Higashino to successfully garner sympathy and appeal for his lonely character, as readers are able to see Ishigami’s desire to break free from social impositions (“How wonderful it would be to forget everything else, all other considerations, all the time sinks of daily life!”)

Parallel to Ishigami’s character, following the clues and elaborate psychology are his counterparts, the detective leading the muder case Kusanagi and his old friend Yukawa, and indeed they prove themselves to be Ishigami’s worthy equals. Although they are stark contrasts to the almost emotion-less Ishigami, showing amiable, approachable personalities and light-hearted humour through the plot, this by no means undermines their own talent, as they are quick to notice clues, progressing the case by following both intuition and rational evidence.
Similarly to Ishigami, the theme of logic and intellect continues here, as we see how the unravelling of an ordinary murder case becomes something more extraordinary. And always likened to this contest of genius, and the strange mystery behind the murder case is the metaphor of ‘math problems’, which represents the ultimate joy and test of intellect for intelligent Ishigami and Yukawa, even as they both unknowingly pit against each other in the murder case. Higashino does well not to ‘dumb down’ the mathematical theories in this novel: although some of us may not fully follow the academic side of it all, it presents a philosophical slant to the novel, exposing the mindsets of the men and adding further depth to them.

Looping the characters and the scenes of the novel together in a way so that only the readers are able to see how the grand picture links together, the narrative remains descriptive yet frank, reflecting the powerful yet quiet emotions in true Japanese tone. Alongside the themes of logic and mystery runs the feelings of love, showing how even though it is not as dramatic, it’s impact is still always as important. And it is this which shows that perhaps there is no real villain here, by questioning our perceptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, Higashino also makes us question our values when it comes to loyalty and devotions. In the midst of oppression – by men, work roles and conducts, social rules – we see how this unfaltering “devotion” and the power of ishigami’s love becomes something to admire. This is not an ordinary murder mystery, nor is it a conventional love story, yet the compelling characters, unspoken powerful emotions and sense of admirable respect establish this novel in a genre of its own, examining both the human mind and the heart.

Keigo Higashino, The Devotion of Suspect X (Little, Brown: London 2011) pp.374 £12.99