Out of the Past
Reviews of: Harriet Lane, Her, Amanda Jennings, The Judas Scar, and Daniel Woodrell, The Maid’s Version
The protagonists of psychological thrillers are very often in thrall to the dark secrets of the past: characters go through their lives imprisoned by the past; or they take flight from it, imagining they can escape; or, just when they least expect it, someone from a former life resurfaces and threatens to destroy them. Harriet Lane’s superb, chilling novel Her begins with a chance meeting between two women whose lives were intertwined in the distant past. In Amanda Jennings’ gripping thriller The Judas Scar, the central relationship from the past is male rather than female, and, from the disturbing prologue on, the reader knows that male brutality and violence are at the core of both past and present narratives. Daniel Woodrell’s extraordinary piece of Southern noir, The Maid’s Version, gives us a past secret that is a communal tragedy rather than a private torment, and we hear the voices of an entire town as we try to untangle the lies and evasions that have proliferated in the decades following a dance hall explosion decades earlier.
Our May 2015 reviews are part of a new Editor’s Choice feature – a selection of some of the best crime novels published during the last two years.
Harriet Lane, Her, Little, Brown (January 2015; 1st edn 2014)
Her is a stunning novel, subtle and nuanced, a brilliantly modulated psychological thriller, creating unease and anxiety out of the smallest details of everyday life, profoundly unsettling us by gradually revealing the menace that can lurk under the surface of the most apparently ordinary conversation. Lane says in interview, “There is something delicious—that’s the only word I can use to describe it—about recreating apprehension on the page… I seem to be drawn to characters— duplicitous or manipulative characters—who specialize in this sort of thing.”
In Her, the character who specialises in generating unease is Nina. She is walking through her own part of London when she suddenly recognizes a woman from her past: “finding her there in front of me after all this time, is almost overwhelmingly powerful: like panic, or passion. I feel my hands curl into fists.” The woman, Emma, worn down by the “invisible drudgery” of coping with a young family, doesn’t remember Nina, who has made herself over the years into “someone quite different”. But Emma is drawn into friendship by this stranger who seems to lead a life much more rewarding and interesting than her own.
Chapters alternate between their points of view: we see Emma responding to overtures of friendship at the same time that we see Nina embarking on her pursuit of a coldly calculated and horrifying plan of revenge for a long past event. The event itself, like so much in Lane’s novel, is a small, unexpected detail, magnified in Nina’s own mind until it assumes monstrous proportions, a torment capable of driving a murderous obsession. Lane leaves a lot of space for us as readers: Nina reflects on a pool side paperback that it is “nothing like life, which – it seems to me – turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstandings or disappointments, the things that it’s easy to overlook.” Few contemporary crime writers are are as capable as Lane of confronting us with the chilling sense that we can be haunted by a past that we have misrepresented in our own minds, and that this subjective reality can disorient us so completely that we can no longer tell the aggressor from the victim, as Nina’s nightmares, in which “I’m hurrying up that dark twisty staircase, and – as ever – it’s unclear whether I’m chasing someone, or whether I’m the one being chased.”
Amanda Jennings, The Judas Scar, Cutting Edge Press (May 2014)
The Judas Scar is a well-crafted and darkly compelling novel. Male rather then female friendship is at its core, and the narrative is correspondingly more brutal: we move towards the revelation of a real and horrifying schoolboy act of violence that took place some twenty-five years earlier and that continues to distort and destroy adult lives.
After its disturbing Prologue, Jenning’s novel opens with a briefly glimpsed scene of idealised suburban bonhomie, a perfect, sunny day that Will and Harmony spend relaxing with friends on Wandsworth Common. But by the chapter’s end, a single cloud drifts across the cornflower sky, and we suspect that this sense of ease and security will be short-lived. When an old school friend, Luke, re-enters Will’s life, long-buried fears materialise: “Will felt his lungs constrict and his thoughts grow foggy as spiking memories bit into him. He’d spent so long trying to erase this boy, this man, from his head, yet here he was, standing right in front of him.” The damaged and obsessive Luke seems driven “to show them they hadn’t broken him.” Struggling to understand Luke’s vengeful quest and to come to terms with fears and betrayals of his own, Will feels that the whole of his present life has grown to be increasingly fragile: “It was like being stuck in a parallel universe, surreal and nightmarish.” Jennings adroitly shifts between individual perspectives and different decades, building a tense, absorbing narrative in which we only gradually come to see how past and present crimes are knotted together.
Daniel Woodrell, The Maid’s Version, Sceptre (August 2013)
Daniel Woodrell’s mastery of storytelling is perhaps nowhere so evident as in The Maid’s Version. The novel’s economical narrative encompasses the voices and experiences of an entire community – the rich and the poor, the guilty and the innocent – conveying all of the widely different accounts, the rumours, distortions and deceits that have accumulated in the thirty-six years since the dance hall explosion that ripped apart a small town in the Missouri Ozarks. It is a remarkable novel – compassionate, moving and ambitious.
Forty-two people died in the 1929 Arbor Dance Hall blast, and the past has not been laid to rest by official judgement or retribution. Responsibility for the disaster has never been established: there was a “howling for justice”, but possible explanations were so numerous and so difficult to prove that no charges were ever brought. “The maid’s version” is only one part of Woodrell’s complex narrative. The raging, garrulous, determined former maid, Alma DeGeer Dunahew, speaks for a much wider sense of loss and grievance: Alma’s grandson is transfixed by her account of “waltzing couples murdered midstep…an excitement of fire, so many fallen, so many suspects, so few facts, a great crime or colossal accident, an ongoing mystery she thought she’d solved.” But the whole of West Table suffered, and all have their tales. Most keep their secrets or collude in silence, but all have been damaged or haunted by the long-ago tragedy: “The screams from the rubble and flames never faded from the ears of those who heard them, the cries of burning neighbors, friends, lovers, and kinfolk like my great- aunt Ruby.” Characteristically, Woodrell ultimately brings us to feel compassion for guilty and innocent alike: one of the most affecting scenes of all is our backwards vision through the eyes of the person most responsible, at the moment in which the past is irrevocably fixed in its appalling horror, unable to move or look away as the world “broke open and flew into the air…a building crumpled to bits flung in the air and people falling.”