Maybe the easiest way to describe this book is to say that I had to stay up so late finishing -- because there was no way I was putting it down -- that I fell asleep the next night writing up a post about it.
When I'd just started this book, I tried to describe it to my wife and this is what I came up with (and still think it works): Imagine Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, but instead of a delightful novel about a genius architect with zero social skills who leaves her profession to raise her child in Seattle, where she has no friends, no life outside of her house and an antagonistic relationship with her neighbors; this is a delightful novel about a genius forensic psychologist with zero social skills who leaves her profession to raise her children in a small town in Vancouver, BC, where she has no friends, no life outside of her house and an antagonistic relationship with her neighbors -- and there's a serial killer.
Yeah, that's glib and shallow -- but it's kinda true.
Ali Dalglish is our genius former psychologist, she's enjoying an early morning cigarette when the woman she's been annoyed by and has antagonized for months shows up at her back porch needing to use her phone. Marlene's dog has just found a body on the beach, and she doesn't carry a cell phone. Ali hands her the phone and takes off to try to secure the scene -- a good move, as it turns out, because the local police aren't up to it. They don't even take her name and address, much less a statement, before they send her home. Ali has already seen enough to conclude that this was no accident or a death by natural causes. This was murder. But the only one that hears her is Marlene.
Neither woman is inspired to confidence by what they see from the local police, and although police with more experience in this sort of thing are on their way, the two decide to investigate the murder on their own. Probably not the wisest choice they could make, but it's an entertaining one. After a quick glance at the victim, Ali puts together a pretty thorough profile of the killer, and she knows this isn't his first kill. The two ladies play amateur sleuths, nosing around their suspect pool's houses and setting up opportunities to observe them. The specialists agree with their suspect lists and profile -- even if they take longer to compile them than Ali. They're also able to confirm many of her theories. Which only emboldens Ali and Marlene to keep at it -- even as they brush up against reckless and dangerous plans (although they have some very safe ones, too).
When the book starts, Ali and Marlene can't stand each other; but events conspire to keep them together, and before either realize it, a friendship is forged -- one that I love, the interplay between the two is just fantastic. There's sort of a Felix/Oscar-vibe between the two, just intensified. Ali also strikes up a friendship/mutual admiration society with one of the investigators that will probably progress interestingly as it continues. In the shadow of the murder, Ali is able to get out of her house and integrate a little with her town in a way she hadn't found possible before.
Now, there is a dark side to this novel, there is a serial killer running around, after all. Ali's profile of him is on the mark, we never get as much detail about what makes him tick as other writers give -- and I'm fine with that. I wouldn't have minded a little more, but what we got was good enough. Chadwick stayed on the right side of exploitative writing about the victims and their deaths. We got enough to see that he was a monster, but there's no relishing in the suffering. There's one scene where a stranger accidentally finds his way into the dungeon the killer keeps his victims in. This is such a good scene, it's so powerful and the details are just perfect. What happens to this poor guy, on the other hand . . . On the whole, there's not much in this part of the novel that we haven't seen before (really, aren't most serial killer stories pretty similar?), but it's the way that Chadwick tells the story that sets it apart from the rest and elevates it.
There's a great red herring. Dealt with in a way that almost no one else in crime fiction does. The police pretty much know he's a red herring, but they have to spend the time to investigate him so they can write him off. This was done so well -- don't get me wrong, I don't enjoy that character, I really didn't like reading one particular scene with him. But what he does to the overall plot was great -- even once he stops being a red herring, he still has a pivotal role to play.
For a first novel, this is put together really well. I was worried in the first few pages, because it was overwritten in a really off-putting way -- thankfully, I realized it was because we opened with the killer's POV. I'm not sure why it is that so many fictional serial killers are written that way, but it works. There were moments where we weren't reading his POV that Chadwick dipped her toe into overwriting, but it was never too much, and after a few chapters it went away (or I got used to it). That aside, the plotting is brisk, the characters are alive, the humor is real and unforced, the pacing is great -- I really can't say enough good things about it.
I don't remember ever having as much fun, being so entertained by a serial killer story -- not for a second did this become some sort of feel-good romp, don't misunderstand me. The horror is real, the stakes are high, but there's a humanity running through this that I just fell under the spell of. There are two more books in this series coming out in the next few months, and you can believe I'll be jumping on them.