On a pleasant spring day, Detective D.D. Warren is called in from a day out with her husband and son to investigate a quadruple homicide. A family of four has been shot and killed in their home. A fifth member, eldest daughter Roxy, is still missing along with the family’s two dogs. As she’s seen fleeing the crime scene, the question immediately rises whether Roxy escaped in a panic, or whether she’s involved with the murder.
Let me start with the essential part here: the dogs are okay. I REPEAT: THE DOGS ARE OKAY AT THE END OF THE NOVEL. NO HARM BEFALLS THE DOGS.
Now that that’s out of the way, I found this to be a strangely lackluster novel. It felt like somehow, Gardner’s heart wasn’t in it when she wrote it. Maybe that’s just me; I’m part of a thriller and detective novel community on Facebook and Gardner has tons of fans there. But this is the third book of hers I’ve read. I downright hated the first book, with its endless yammering about fairy tales, princesses in towers, evil stepmothers. I was pleasantly surprised by the second book of hers I tried, though, and most of that is down to the character of Flora Dane. Flora makes another appearance in this book, so I decided to give it a go.
I still like Flora, but her role in this book is somewhat more sedated. The victim of a previous, horrific ordeal, Flora has devoted her life to helping others in a similar predicament. Though she has never met Roxy directly she recognises the girl from an internet forum for other survivors that she runs, and she goes to Warren not so much as to offer help but more to shove it in her face. She’s an intelligent and passionate person. Warren dislikes her interference but reluctantly accepts her help.
After three books, though, I think I’m beginning to spot what I don’t like about Gardner’s works: she loves herself some fairytales. Her books are always full of evil stepmothers and helpless little princesses. Though this book isn’t the worst offender by far it still gives up a sort of clichè’d vibe (the grimy foster parent is called Mother Dell, for God’s sake). The mystery itself was okay, I guess, but because of the tepid writing style it feels unenthused about itself. It doesn’t help that Warren herself is a wet rag of a character, a cardboard cutout, and her seemingly perfect husband and son are straight out of a 1950s commercial.
In fact, it’s the passive, apathetic writing that bothers me most. The mystery at the centre of it isn’t bad, but the cheap, plastic window dressing detracts from it. Besides, this genre can occasionally feel like a competition between thriller writers as to who can pile the most crap on top of their characters, and Gardner is one of the worst offenders. I don’t mind gore in novels, but at a certain point it’s almost as if every single person in her novels has known nothing but endless, deep, repetitive trauma (except for Warren, who, I suppose, is meant to balance things out, though it doesn’t work). It all feels weirdly garbled, like a rough draft of a novel she only wrote because her editor wanted her to. That may just be me – Gardner has plenty of fans and her books get good ratings on Goodreads. And I know she can write well; I liked the last book of hers I read. This one, though, felt like a dud, crashing down, spluttering a few halfhearted obscenities before petering out into oblivion.