Murder and mystery are what they are all interested in as the members of the so called Mystery Club of their university. They like to delve in the classic stories and to solve the puzzles of crimes. They have even given themselves nick names after the great classic writers of crime novels: Ellery, Carr, Leroux, Poe, Van, Agatha and Orczy. When they are invited to the remote island of Tsunojima, they are thrilled. It has been the place of a quadruple murder the year before and thus promises an interesting week which they want to spend with writing and enjoying themselves. Yet, they did not count on somebody waiting there for them to settle an old bill which is to be paid with their lives. In the meantime, on the mainland, three people receive letters insinuating that something strange might be going on and that a presumably dead killer might still be around.
“Even if the world were viewed as a chessboard, and every person on it a chess piece, there would still be a limit as to how far future moves could be predicted. The most meticulous plan, plotted to the last detail, could still go wrong sometime, somewhere, somehow.”
Yukito Ayatsuji’s debut novel is clearly inspired by the novels of the Golden Age of crime using the classic setting. “The Decagon House Murders” was first published in Japan in 1987 but only now the English translation is available. The reader alternatingly follows the evens on the island, where one after the other student finds his/her death and on the mainland, where they do not know what exactly happens there but try to combine the murders of the year before with the current events and the mysterious letters they got. Even though both lines of enquiry provide numerous ideas of what could be happening, the reader remains in the dark until the very end, just to discover what can only be called the perfect murder.
The novel is a homage to the classic crime novels and mystery readers who have always enjoyed Agatha Christie and the like will be totally enthralled. The plot, first of all, lives on the atmosphere of the island which is not very welcoming and cut off from the outside thus strongly reminding of “And Then There Were None”. The fact that it was the scene of a dreadful murder only months before adds to the its mysterious vibes. The murders seem to be carefully planned, no repetition in how they students find death and therefore leaving you pondering about one person could manage all this without being detected.
Riley, Sammy, Mia and Scarlett are art students at Monroe and working on projects together when one day, Sammy suggests a trip to Whisper Island, Alaska, where they could spend their holidays for free and profit from its remoteness and special surroundings for their artwork. Even though the others are not too keen on spending summer in the cold north, they agree and see it as an adventure. When they are on their way, Sammy announces that her brother Rob would join them, not just does she thus destroy the girls trip, but especially Mia is angry, her best friend should know that after their breakup, the wounds that Rob had caused never really healed. When they finally arrive, it is not just Rob but also his new girlfriend Opal awaiting them in a run-down house. But not only their lodging is a disappointment, also their boat to travel to the next town is out of order and then their whole trip turns into a nightmare when they realise that they are obviously not alone on the island since a murderer is on the loose killing one after the other.
Carissa Ann Lynch has chosen a classic locked-room setting which strongly reminded me of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”. Even though the students are not total strangers, they evidently know much less from each other than they thought before their departure. The story is narrated alternatingly from the points of view of the characters thus providing insight in their hidden thoughts and offering the reader, on the hand, clues to what could be behind all this murdering but, on the other hand, also a lot of red herrings which keeps suspense high.
The present events on the island are surely the main focus of the plot, however, the girls’ past, the things they hide from the others – and astonishingly, each of them has quite a story to offer – are much more interesting to unravel. Sammy soon hints at the fact that she did not suggest the trip out of the blue but actually had a good reason to vanish from Memphis and so had her brother. Mia seems to have been in a scandal a couple of years ago which she hopes the others have never heard of but of which the anniversary is close and threatening to make the others a see side of her she prefers to keep hidden. Scarlett struggles with drug abuse and hopes to get sober in the weeks on the island. Riley is new to the group and she is also the one who is quite closed up not giving away too much form herself and her family, so, what does she have to hide?
I liked the atmosphere on the hardly welcoming island which immediately gives you the creeps and fits perfectly to the plot. Speculating about why the six might have been chosen as targets was great fun and finally was revealed and explained. An entertaining and fast-paced mystery following a classic structure.
After a turbulent youth, the break-up with her mom, some time in a detention centre and no plan what to do with her life, Vera ends up in New York, trying this job and that job. One day, she is addressed by a man who noticed her quick wits and technical understanding. He is a recruiter for the CIA and thus, a couple of years later, Vera finds herself in Buenos Aires with the fake ID of a Canadian student named Anne. Her mission: spy on a group of students who the CIA believes to work for the KGB in order to ally Argentina with the Soviet Union. Vera/Anne makes befriends Ramón and Victoria who have radicalised and are disappointed by how the country is governed. Yet, then suddenly, the military ventures a coup d’état and General Onganía’s men take over. Vera/Anne is stuck, foreigners are not allowed to travel anymore, her local contact betrayed her and she gets the runaround by her superior within the CIA. Either she acts for herself, or she is lost.
“Who Is Vera Kelly?” is not an easy to classify novel. It is a kind of bildungsroman, we get to know young Vera who protests against her mother and school and has to grow up the hard way. A young woman who is looking for her place in life and oscillates between different options without a clear aim. On the other hand, the novel is a political or spy crime novel since we have Vera/Anne prying on rebellious students to uncover any KGB involvement in Argentina and also the time after the Revolución which brings the military dictatorship and severe restrictions for the people.
At both times of her life, Vera is lonely, her affection for her school friend is not returned and also when she arrives in New York does she not find a person to really bond with. This qualifies for a lone spy job abroad where she is left to her own devices and cannot really build deep friendships. The experiences she made as a teenager, especially with her mother who kicked her out into the detention centre and did not show any interest in her, gave her quite a good education for her mission.
Vera is not a classic heroine, she is no James Bond and does not compare to any other dazzling movie character. She is actually the perfect spy, she blends in smoothly, goes unnoticed and her technical skills allow her even without any sophisticated equipment to get the information she needs. When she finds herself deserted of all contacts and help, she is close to breaking down but then shows her real strength. She just goes on and finds a solution to escape.
A perfect blend of a young woman who is far ahead of her time in terms of emancipation and going her own way and a world in political turmoil. The plot becomes increasingly suspenseful and thus is a real page-turner.
When on a late evening scientist Emma finds a young woman dead on the university premises, it looks like a hit and run without any connection to the place. But then, the police find out that she had the ID of another student with her and also wore her clothes. Carline Darcy, first presumed the victim, reacts very harshly to the police showing up at her apartment, but her behaviour makes her even more suspicious, especially since Carline comes from a very rich family owning the institute close to which the body of the still unidentified woman was found. As Cormac Reilly and his team investigate, more and more evidence pops up linking the rich girl to the murder. But also the scientist who found the victim is doubtful – wasn’t she connected to another murder just a couple of months before? And what about the fact that Emma is the leading sergeant’s partner?
Dervla McTiernan’s thriller is a highly complex police investigation that I thoroughly enjoyed to read. It moves at a high pace and on every new page, new evidence appears that leads to another thread that you could follow. To fully understand to extent of the case, it takes some time and you as a reader investigate along the police all the time. The fact that sergeant Reilly himself is personally involved gives it all a bit of an extra that made the whole story even more interesting.
There are two aspects in the novel that I found wonderfully elaborated. First of all, the ways dysfunctional families find their own modus operandi in which they proceed and which can never be penetrated by somebody from outside. It was mainly in a side plot that this a deeply developed, but it was also true for the protagonist’s family, just with a slight shift of interest. The second was the question of how far people are willing to go for success and recognition. These are highly valued in our times and often the main feature to define a person. If you cannot compete, you are nothing. With this attitude, to we dig our own graves in putting people under so much pressure that they cannot see a way out?
For a conference, Karen returns to the town she attended college many years before. It is not a pleasant return since the place is connected to sad memories. Going back there brings it all again to her mind. Her roommates, nice girls at first, whose plan got completely wrong. Her then boy-friend and his fraternity GBC who always treated her nicely but also had another, darker side. The teacher they all admired in their gender studies classes. And the scandal that shock the whole town.
Sarah Henstra’s novel tells different tales with only one story. First of all, we have the strong protagonist Karen who as a Canadian always stands a bit outside her fellow students’ circles. She doesn’t have the same background; neither does she have the rich parents who provide her with all she needs not does she come with the intellectual package that most of the others seem to possess. The need to earn money to support herself keeps her from leading the same life as they do. This also brings her into the special situation between the groups who soon find themselves at war.
The central topic, however, is how college students deal with sex. On the one hand, we have the partying during which much alcohol and all kinds of drugs are consumed which makes the young people reckless and careless. On the other hand, we have the planned drugging of young women with Rohypnol to abused them. There is a third perspective, represented by the academic intelligentsia: the classic image of the woman as victim, portrayed in history and literature throughout the centuries and which did not change in more than two thousand years.
“The Red Word” could hardly be more relevant and up-to-date in the discussions we have seen all over the word about male dominance and indiscriminate abuse of their stronger position. Sarah Henstra does not just foreshadow what happens at the student houses, she openly talks about the rape that happens there. And she does provide a credible picture of what happens afterwards, of how women are accused of having contributed or even asked for it, of lame excuses for the male behaviour and of the psychological effect these experiences have on the students – both, male and female. It is not just black and white, there are many shadows and motives behind their actions, Henstra integrates them convincingly.
A felicitous novel with a very important story to tell.