Publisher: Simon & Schuster Genre: Crime/Suspense Pages: 321 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
This novel follows Arden Maynor, now Olivia Meyer, on the 20th anniversary of the day she was found in the small town of Widow Hills. When Arden was six years old, she was sleepwalking and went missing for three days until she was found clinging to the bars of a storm drain.
After that, her life was never the same. Growing tired of the cameras in her face and the news constantly circling around her, she moved hundreds of miles away and changed her name to Oliva Meyer, hoping to start over. Which worked, for a while, until the 20th anniversary of the incident comes up, and everything Arden tried to bury comes bubbling to the surface.
This novel surprised me in many ways. I am a big fan of suspense/crime novels and because of that, I can be a bit critical of them. That being said, this novel delivered in every department necessary to make a good one. It had murder, mystery, a splash of romance, and a plot twist I never saw coming. Everything you think you know at the beginning of the novel is upended by the end, and I think I actually gasped at one point. The story truly whisks you away into the drama that seems to follow Arden everywhere.
Arden is a great example of an unreliable narrator, but somehow that made me trust her more. Being close to her as the reader brings the story closer—it allowed every twist and turn to be even more shocking as we found out things as they were revealed to her. The best stories are the ones that suck you in and make you a character, and this is one of those.
The only critique I have is that it starts a bit slow. The real action doesn’t occur until about a third of the way in. That being said, the characters are so interesting and mysterious that I was able to latch onto them immediately, and so, this didn’t prove to be too much of an issue.
If you’re in the market for a good suspense novel, The Girl from Widow Hills is sure to keep you on your toes. It will be in stores on June 23, 2020 and is available for pre-order from Changing Hands Bookstore here.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
Noir fiction is a lost art, and maybe for good reason. The genre is rife with misogyny, sexism, and toxic masculinity, traits that don’t fare well in modern culture. But every era is just a capsule that shows how its people were raised, what they valued, and what they envisioned for the future. While we can read noir fiction with a bad taste in our mouths, we can also read it with detached curiosity about the time capsule in which it’s contained. In doing so, we inevitably find a genre rich with sharp storytelling, witty dialogue, and crafty characters.
The novel Double Indemnity is no exception. Written in 1943 by American novelist James M. Cain, it inverts the typical salty and wise-cracking detective story into one of an anti-hero. This is the story of the criminal himself, insurance salesman Walter Huff.
Huff is hardworking, all-American, laser-focused, and keen to ferret out shady deals to protect the firm he works for. When he drops by the Nirdlinger residence to remind the elusive Mr. Nirdlinger to renew his automobile insurance policy, he meets the volumptuous femme fatale Phyllis, the dissatisfied wife of Mr. Nirdlinger. Phyllis discusses insurance with Huff, feigning ignorance of the whole process, but when she starts fishing for information about accident coverage, Huff grows suspicious. He knows immediately that Phyllis wants accident insurance to pull a fast one on Mr. Nirdlinger, and he wants no part of it. That is, until later that night when he starts stewing over the idea. What if he devised a perfect scheme to collect an accident insurance claim? After all, Huff knows every angle of the insurance business, and it’s something he’s thought about more than once.
Romance, premeditated murder, and a faked train accident
Thus begins a taut narrative of romance, premeditated murder, a faked train accident, and a suspicious insurance agency that will find any reason not to pay out the claim. Huff plays it cool, but as his boss, Keyes, begins to piece together the evidence, the tension begins to crack the relationship between Huff and Phyllis. Huff drifts away out of self-preservation, but he begins to form a close bond with Nirdlinger’s daughter from a previous marriage, who confesses that she thinks her stepmother, Phyllis, killed her father. Huff tries to talk her down, until he learns a shocking truth about Phyllis, one that will lead him to do the unthinkable.
While readers might be quick to dub Phyllis an archetypal spider-woman, who lures Huff into the twisted web of her plot, it is Huff who masterminds the murder and orchestrates it. Still, it’s difficult to see Walter Huff as a real criminal. Cain sketches his character with enough human complexity that he emerges as a near hero by the end of the book, leaving Phyllis behind as the twisted villain. But we can’t quite forgive Huff for committing murder, and neither can Cain. In the end, Huff’s and Phyllis’s mutual culpability drags them to a surprising ending.
Say what you will about the noir fiction genre of the early 20th century, but many of these stories were ahead of their time. Their exploration of sexuality and hard crime were deemed appalling by readers of the era, though these themes feel tame by modern standards. Still, the grip these stories have on the history of crime fiction and thrillers is undeniable, and they provide a history lesson that will keep you up reading late into the night.
The moon cut the night sky, a razor-sharp glint casting only enough light to throw all into shadow. Pools of light cut feebly into the night, outlining the figures that moved swiftly through them, in and out of darkness. The figures hastened towards a brightly lit building in the distance as if pulled there by some unseen force. There was a metallic taste to the air, and the girl breathed in deeply, sucking the hint of electrical current deep into her lungs.
Tonight was the night of the gathering. Her pulse quickened as she took her first step through the maze of shadows. Perhaps she would be met by only whispers and furtive glances, huddled figures gathered closely in dim corners. The fabrics of their elegant clothes swishing softly, the deep folds capable of hiding any number of perilous items. Instruments edged with the same precision as the neatly honed words of the authors of mystery and suspense who collected inside. Fear mingled with excitement, and her curiosity drove her onward towards the distant glow which broke the darkness.
My Night at Croak & Dagger
Though this may be a highly romanticized version of the night I visited with the New Mexico chapter of the Sisters in Crime organization, neatly titled Croak & Dagger, my excitement was no less palpable. I was elated at the idea of a network of women writers who share my love of characters that cannot be trusted, moonless nights whispering the promise of death and betrayal, and the thrill of the hunt. I knew upon learning of this society that here I would find kindred spirits, here I would find women laced together in ink and blood.
The Sisters in Crime is a world-wide network of writers and bibliophiles boasting more than 60 chapters with over 4000 members. Self-described on their website as “authors, readers, publishers, agents, booksellers and librarians bound by our affection for the genre and our support of women crime writers.” With more than 50 chapters existing in the United States, the syndicate’s wide-spread reach is indicative of the enthusiasm which permeates its meetings.
I arrived with notebook hand, armed with the name Charlene Dietz, president of the local chapter with whom I had corresponded. The room itself was in stark contrast with my gloomy musings, brightly lit and inviting, packed with chairs in neat rows. There was a colorful array of scarves, jewelry and cozy sweaters to stave off the chill of the late winter air outside. A buzz filled the room, people happily chatting, leaning close in to each other in their excitement. I was greeted at once by a warm smile by a woman who introduced herself as Ann, and gently pulled me into the fold. We were greeted, in turn, by a tall woman with perfectly bobbed, silvery hair and an equally gentle look. As she introduced herself, this was Madame President, she welcomed me with a hug and I felt immediately at ease.
I took my place in the front row as the meeting commenced with a jovial feeling. There was light banter back and forth between the speakers and crowd. A change in future meeting venue was being discussed, and as one speaker stated, “I cannot stress to you how hard it is to find a parking spot,” she was answered with a mischievous “How hard is it?”, the company bubbling with laughter. This was the business portion of the evening, and topics ranged from upcoming meetings to community events were discussed. The line-up of speakers for the next few months included a court reporter, a fellow author, and a neurologist. Each of these presenters selected for the knowledge they could impart which was relevant to the crime genre. The members discussed an upcoming “speed dating” event which would consist of a conversation between one writer and one reader for three minute increments in several rounds.
The members enthusiastically planned for events such as a library tour in Albuquerque and the surrounding area, as well as celebrating each other’s publishing and writing successes. One author was scheduled as a panelist for a literary conference in California, another had just gotten his 600th Amazon review. Yes, there were also a few men sprinkled throughout the meeting, illustrating the inclusivity which I had already felt. Perhaps the greatest excitement in the room came when the premiere event of 2020 was reviewed. Having a submitted a request to the national syndicate, Croak & Dagger was proud to announce that it had been given permission to have an event with best-selling mystery author Rhys Bowen. With discussion of sister chapters and the appearance of a nationally known writer, it was apparent that while this chapter was local, the interest and the network itself was ubiquitous. I got the feeling that no matter where a person might visit the Sisters in Crime, they would be greeted with as much warmth and literary fervor as I had been.
The latter half of the meeting consisted of a panel discussion, consisting of the voices of readers, the subject of which was “What Do Readers Want Authors to Know?”. Introductions of the panelists were made by Charlene, prefaced with the statement “this may or may not be true.” Some of the biographical information she shared was fictional, and everyone present was delighted by the creative energy. After being asked what they looked for in covers when choosing a book, ideas such as “interesting details” and “what other authors have blurbed about the book” on the back cover were mentioned. One panelist looked for an interesting font on the spine of a book when choosing. The members of the crowd paid close attention, each visibly storing away the information for future perusal. Some plot dos and don’ts were also brought up, such as not killing off an important character, or not allowing for a character to betray the reader by acting against their nature.
The final question of the night was, “What happens when you close a book?” A panelist replied simply, “If you’ve created a world that I can inhabit, I will remember.” This heady idea was agreed on by all the panelists and the discussion closed with all present reminded of the reason that we all love the written word. The panelists were each given an engraved silver-toned letter opener, marked S in C (Sisters in Crime) Croak & Dagger to mark the occasion.
As the meeting ended, the chatter crested throughout the room once again, this time filled excitement for the future and abuzz with fresh ideas. Members dwindled out, heading to the nearby coffee shop to continue the lively exchange. I hung back taking it all in. Several members spoke to me and expressed their pleasure at my presence and encouragement to me as a writer. Ann even shared with me some of her own story, telling me about her days writing as a both a student and teacher. I left with a feeling of deep satisfaction. I had not only found a meeting of like minds, I had found a sisterhood (ahem, and brotherhood) of kind and creative souls.
Crime-suspense is one of my favorite genres—I find that there is nothing better and more satisfying than solving a good mystery. So, whether you are just getting into the genre, or you’ve watched all the crime documentaries on Netflix and need more mystery, I’ve got just the thing for you: a list of my top 4 crime novels, written in various styles, so you can find the one that is right for you!
The Woods – Harlan Coben. This is one of my all time favorite novels. It follows the story of Paul Copeland, who lost his sister 20 years ago when she went missing from the summer camp they attended. Now, he is a prosecutor in New Jersey and goes by Cope. However, just as he begins to move forward from his sister’s death, a homicide victim comes forward that could be linked to his sister. As he works again to solve the mystery from 20 years ago, shocking new discoveries about the case are made. This novel is full of suspense and it is a true page-turner. With a plot twist that is absolutely mind blowing, I always recommend it to people who want to read a crime novel. Netflix even adapted it into a series (with only minor changes!). To this day, it is one of the best and most creative novels I’ve ever read, and I highly recommend everyone to pick up a copy!
Outfox – Sandra Brown. This is a splendid novel for someone interested in a crime story mixed with a little bit of romance. It follows Drex Easton, an FBI agent who has been on the hunt for the same man for 30 years. This man, formerly known as Weston Graham, becomes close with wealthy women, and then murders them in ways that appear to be accidents, taking their money after. Each time, he changes his appearance and name completely, leaving no trace. Drex finally gets a lead on a him, but, in the process begins to fall in love with his wife. This novel perfectly intertwines a suspenseful chase with a heartwarming love story. As with any crime novel, it also includes an unanticipated plot twist. It is a definite read for anyone looking to enter the world of crime/mystery novels.
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins. This novel is a little bit more well known, and also an excellent read. It follows the story of Rachel Watson, an alcoholic who grieves the end of her marriage with her husband Tom after he has an affair and marries the woman he cheated with. Rachel rides the train every morning and observes a seemingly perfect couple who lives on the street she used to live on. She becomes enchanted by the couple, reminiscing on the life she used to live. One day, she sees the wife kissing another man and days later, the woman has disappeared. Rachel remembers snippets of a night where she interacted with the missing woman, but has blacked out on most of the rest. The story progresses as she tries to piece together the true story of what happened, with a twist I did not see coming. This is a great crime/mystery novel for anyone who already loves the genre, or, for people starting to get into it. It was also made into a motion picture, but I recommend reading the book first to really get into the story!
Something in the Water – Catherine Steadman. This novel is another favorite of mine, however, it has a slightly different setup than the above novels. It primarily follows Erin Locke and her husband, Mark, after they find a mysterious bag floating in the water on their honeymoon filled with a bundle of cash, a gun, a flash drive, a bag of diamonds and a phone. They try to return the bag to the front desk, but it continues to appear in their room. Eventually, they decide to do some investigating themselves to see if they can maneuver their way into keeping the prizes. The interesting thing about this novel is that it starts months after they find the bag, at the height of the story and then goes back in time from there. This plot line gave some foreshadowing to the story and made my desire to unfold the mystery even stronger. This novel kept me flipping the pages and airs more on the side of suspense than true crime. I definitely recommend giving it a read.