BOOK REVIEW: The Perfect Liar, a psychological thriller with problematic protagonists

Green, Thomas Christopher - The Perfect LiarThe Perfect Liar
by Thomas Christopher Greene

Both Susannah and Max, the dual narrators of The Perfect Liar, overcame challenging childhoods. Susannah began having panic attacks in college then became sexually involved with her therapist. Max, who never knew his father, spent his impoverished childhood with a neglectful mother only to join a group of “crusty punks” and spend three years homeless migrating with the seasons. But they’ve put these struggles long behind them. Their fulfilling and intimate marriage only blossoms as Max achieves professional success as an artist and secures a prestigious appointment at a university in Burlington, Vermont.

However, when Susannah finds a note on their front door saying I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, the illusions she and Max have so carefully constructed crack under the weight of secrets and lies. After one of Max’s colleagues dies in a tragic fall when they were out trail running together, attention on their family only increases, and the ominous notes continue to arrive.

The Perfect Liar is an easy-to-read, fast-paced thriller with some surprising turns. It also plays with the idea that personalities and life stories are creations as much as a painting on a canvas. But there were aspects of the novel that diminished my enjoyment. In the first half of the book, characters unnecessarily insulted or mis-characterized the mentally ill, bald people, and vegans.

Throughout the book, certain details rang false. After a successful Ted talk, Max received a number of “luxurious” job offers from universities across the country. Usually, the academic job market is much more competitive than represented here, and I’ve never heard of high paying positions in an art department for a visiting professor. In the hospital, a nurse wrote on a clipboard, but it’s rare to find a medical facility that doesn’t have electronic records. And a description of search dogs made me think the author isn’t aware of how disciplined and well-trained these working dogs are.

I also had issues with the writing style. The transitions between changing character views were non-existent, though I hope this is an artifact of the reading copy I read and in the finished version, there will be spaces or a bullet/ornament on the page. Often, the author used “I am,” “I will,” and so on when contractions would have provided a more natural rhythm. At times, too, the prose exhibited a lack of polish.

The absolute worst part of the The Perfect Liar, though, was Susannah. She is a female character only a man could write, with a focus on her appearance and cooking skills. For her sex only seems to be about manipulating men or giving men a necessary release rather than any personal pleasure. When the family moved to Vermont, she became a stay-at-home housewife completely abandoning her career. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that decision, but it’s a difficult decision to make. Susannah demonstrates none of the conflict I would expect in a woman in her position. And this doesn’t even touch upon her seduction of her therapist. Max himself is a sexist prick, but somehow in a book like this, I’m not surprised.

Finally, while the notes were an interesting plot device and provided a sense of mystery, it is unclear what the sender ever hoped to gain from such a passive act.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: AN ANONYMOUS GIRL, a psychological experiment gone awry

Hendricks and Pekkanen - An Anonymous Girl 5 editedAn Anonymous Girl
by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

Make-up artist Jessica Ferris is burdened with secrets. Instead of working in theater, as she told her family, she’s making her living doing in-home makeovers with BeautyBuzz. She can’t bear to disappoint her parents. But she’s had practice keeping secrets for much longer. . . .

When she learns of a psychological study about ethics that pays participants $500 dollars, Jess doesn’t think twice before attending a research session that was originally scheduled for one of her make-up clients. Ben Quick, research assistant to Dr. Shields, who is running the study, escorts Jess into an empty classroom where she’s asked to respond to a series of questions about lying. To some extent, Jess feels liberated by the exercise and eagerly attends a second session the next day.

Something about Jess comes through in her responses, and Dr. Shields invites her to join a more extensive, less conventional offshoot of the study that challenges ethics in real-world settings. Jess just learned that her father was laid off from his job selling insurance and decided to agree; she also began to see Dr. Shields as a sympathetic confidant.

Over time, Dr. Shields pushes Jess to perform questionable behaviors in service of her study, and Jess, though at time uncomfortable with what Dr. Shields wants her to do, acquiesces in the face of Dr. Shields’ authority–and the large payments she is getting to participate.

But as Dr. Shields learns more about Jess and puts her in increasingly compromising and dangerous position, Jess begins to wonder how much she can trust the doctor. As she tries to uncover the layers, Dr. Shields uses manipulation and deflection to further ensnare Jess until Jess’s very life is at stake.

An Anonymous Girl is told through the shifting perspectives of Jessica and Dr. Shields. Dr. Shields’ sections are written in second person, present tense, passive voice. While I understand Hendricks and Pekkanen likely made the stylistic choice to emphasize Dr. Shield’s distancing from the study, these sections were unpleasant to read. Writers guides advise to write in active voice for a very good reason.

The authors show that they are familiar with some psychological phenomenon: they mention the Hawthorne Effect and the Prisoner’s Dilemma which provide some grounding for the book and lend authority to Dr. Shields. At the same time, there is a decided lack of awareness regarding informed consent in psychological research studies or about research design, in which the hypotheses and research methods are set well in advance of data collection and don’t change. Dr. Shields’ unconventional methods and lack of adherence to commonly accepted precepts might provide some characterization but they also strain credulity.

It’s also hard to believe that Jess would capitulate to Dr. Shields’ demands. Dr. Shield is presented as charismatic and cunning, but still! Jess, though, is a scrappy character if slightly inconsistent, and she has a profession I’ve not seen in a novel before. At times, though, her inner voice was astute and polished while her dialogue with other characters was choppy and unsophisticated, and the contrast was jarring.

Beyond the standard psychological thriller plotting, An Anonymous Girl also incorporates themes of guilt, revenge, making assumptions, and obedience (though they missed the opportunity to reference the Milgram obedience studies). The added interest these themes provides somewhat offsets the stylistic shortcomings and questionable characterizations, making the book a good choice for a plane trip.

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: IN A HOUSE OF LIES, classic John Rebus

rankin, ian - in a house of lies (3)In a House of Lies
Ian Rankin

A group of boys playing in the woods finds an old VW Polo and is excited about the possibility of treasure inside–until they notice a body in the boot. The body is soon identified as Stuart Bloom, a private investigator who went missing in 2006. Bloom’s parents had criticized the investigation from the beginning, and now that his body was recovered, in an area supposedly searched by the investigative team, they were keen to tell their story once again to the media.

Siobhan Clarke was seconded to the MIT handling Bloom’s murder, while Malcolm Fox was assigned to review how the investigative team handled the original case. As much as John Rebus, our favorite retired detective, wanted in on the investigation, he was a part of the original team, accused of protecting Derek Shankley, Bloom’s boyfriend, and the son of Rebus’s friend DI Alex Shankley of Glasgow, and therefore a suspect.

Meanwhile, Clarke was getting hang up calls and someone defaced her tenement door while Grant Edwards and Brian Steele of Internal Affairs hovered around her hoping for her to make a mistake.

Bloom’s case might finally bring Rebus–and Clarke–down and ultimately drive an immutable wedge between them and Fox, if Rebus and Clarke can’t solve the murder.

I was so excited about the new Rebus book, I ordered it from the UK, and I wasn’t disappointed. In a House of Lies has everything I want in a Rebus mystery: strong writing, a defiant, stick-it-in-your-eye Rebus, time with Brillo, Rebus’s dog, advocating for the underdog, ignoring authority, verbal sparring with Big Ger Cafferty, and a surprising resolution. As in the last few books, Rebus has–slightly–mellowed, and his COPD slows him down, to his neverending frustration. While Rebus has a romance, it (thankfully) doesn’t occupy much space nor does it change or soften Rebus (much).

The book did start a little slow for me, and I think I liked the secondary plot, about possibly wrongly convicted Ellis Meikle more than the primary mystery, but overall, In a House of Lies was a very satisfying Rebus book that hit all the right notes.

Book Review: THE FERAL DETECTIVE, an unusual mystery with problematic protagonist

Lethem, Jonathan - The Feral Detective (2)The Feral Detective
Jonathan Lethem

Phoebe Siegler, who had quit her job in a fit of rage over the results of the 2016 election, traveled to Upland, California on the trail of Arabella Swados, her friend Rosyln’s eighteen-year-old daughter who went missing from her Oregon college the previous fall. To help her find Arabella, she enlists Charles Heist, the feral detective, whose unusual looks are matched only by his unconventional techniques. On the trail of Arabella, they travel to the desert, to off-grid gendered communities having strange rituals but few rules, though Heist’s unique background may help them navigate the dangerous, wild world.

Phoebe is a female character who could only have been written by a man. Her sexual attraction to Heist is inexplicable and sometimes simply gross, especially given the context of searching for a missing teenager. Yet, she thinks, “I wanted to confirm my ability to anchor this man’s drifting attention. Before he found Arabella, I thought, he ought to find me.”

At one point, she describes a Western she and her father watched but that her mother hated. The female lead spent much of her screen time sequestered in a room above the saloon, and her big moment came when she dropped a flower pot on the antagonist’s head. Her mother decried the character’s lack of agency, and to some extent, Phoebe seemed to agree with that assessment, but she keeps finding herself in the position of that heroine. In one key scene, she is literally locked up above the action, and to make matters worse, she accidentally pepper sprays herself. Even when she envisions herself as a rescuer, she needs rescuing, the damsel in distress.

The Feral Detective is packed with symbolism: copious amounts of rain in the desert, the encroachment of the wild into civilization and visa versa, the relationship between Rabbits and Bears, the impact of the 2016 election, how that which provides freedom can itself be a cage. But truly, I just don’t care enough to try to unpack all the meaning.

Yet, there are some beautiful phrasings. Phoebe observed: “We were in whatever we were in together, and since we barely knew each other, we were alone too.” And she knew of herself: “I felt I could say anything to Lorrie, but not in a good way.” If Phoebe had been written differently, less sexist, I might have liked the book. Alas. . .

Book Review: THE MOTHER-IN-LAW, a well-written page turner

IMG_1760(1)The Mother-in-Law
Sally Hempworth

Successful, proper, and aloof, Diana founded and runs a charity focusing on caring for pregnant refugees. Diana has always intimidated her daughter-in-law Lucy, who, having lost her own mother at a young age, had hoped to have a close relationship with her. Instead, their relationship was fraught with tension and littered with miscommunication and misunderstanding, with Lucy once even pushing Diana and rendering her unconscious.

Everyone was surprised when Diana died and there was evidence of suicide–a note explaining she had breast cancer. But there were also anomalies. The autopsy found no breast cancer, but it did show traces of carbon dioxide and poison, and unexplained gold fibers were found in her hand. Shortly after her death, the family is shocked when they learn that only a few weeks before her death, Diana changed her will leaving her entire estate to her charity, not to her children.

Lucy might have know much more about Diana’s death than she revealed to her husband or the police, but other suspects arise as well, and they all have secrets they were keeping from each other.

The Mother-in-Law is a suspenseful, well-written thriller told from the point of view of two interesting characters, Diana and Lucy. Seeing the roots of their misunderstandings make them even more tragic, though Diana can be quite devilish and Lucy quite stubborn.

This is a great pick if you are looking for a well-paced, well-written page turner!

I won an advance reading copy of The Mother-in-Law through a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you Goodreads and St. Martin’s Press! All opinions are my own.