Many novels appear with the label “psychological thriller” but the promised content falls flat. Not so with this novel, this one engages the readers mind, twists it, and stirs not so gently. This is full of horror and violence, but not a lot of unnecessary explicit sexual violence. Think of what “snuff films” implies and you get an idea of what kind of gruesomeness you will find in this work. But all of this is the acting out of a psychopath. To find out the why of the actions, refer to the author’s phrasing of how the story unfolds, “it’s like skinning the layers of an onion.”
Claire and Paul are in love. Claire feels comfortable, safe, protected, and lucky to be married to Paul. He did have a tendency to over organize everything. If Paul carried a pistol, it would be a label maker. Their house was spotless, everything in its place and even labeled. The obvious coffee maker was labeled “coffee maker.” There was a jarring feeling of sterility with the predominantly white everything, but Paul was the person who kept things in order, Claire just enjoyed it. Until he died in a robbery gone wrong. And that is in chapter one.
As Claire grieves the reader finds out that she has a lot more to grieve about than a murdered husband. Julia, Claire’s sister had disappeared several years previously. Police would not investigate, convinced that Julia was a runaway. Julia’s body was never found. Sam, father to Claire, Julia, and Lydia, harassed the police for several years while writing a series of letters to Julia detailing his efforts to discover her fate. Sam and wife Helen, mother of the three daughters, divorce over Sam’s inability to move on and accept the loss of Julia, whether that loss had ended in death or desertion.
Lydia and Claire went on with their lives in the absence of Julia. Lydia chose a surrealistic lifestyle provided by drugs and predictable free sex. Claire had Paul. Early in the novel we don’t know a lot about Helen’s or Sam’s reactions to Claire’s Paul. He seems to be a person who liked to please people. Father Sam feels uncomfortable with him, but does not have solid evidence for why he feels the discomfort. Lydia does not like Paul, understandable in that he tried to rape her. No one believed Lydia’s rape story as by the time of the recounting Lydia was already deep into a lifestyle supported by money she got by stealing from her parents, getting into trouble with the police, and lying constantly.
Lydia completely broke from all members of her family, even grandma Ginny, when her story about Paul’s rape attempt was not accepted. Although geographically close, there were no phone calls, visits, or communication for almost twenty years until a chance meeting at Paul’s gravesite where Claire came across Lydia urinating on her husband’s grave. After a tense meeting where the two sisters agreed to continue disagreeing, Lydia went home to boyfriend Rick and daughter Dee. Claire went home to an empty house full of Paul’s stuff. And the newly discovered snuff film tapes.
After a bit of time for shock to wear off, Claire takes the tapes to the police. Investigators say they have seen these kinds of things before and point out to her details proving that the films were fakes. Claire has already determined that the killer depicted in the films is not Paul, but she wants to know why Paul had the tapes. She is not completely sure the films are fake and she is puzzled why the police are not more excited.
The story moves on with the aid of flashbacks and recollections by Sam (now dead, but he left notebooks), Helen (descriptions of coping mechanisms after Julia’s disappearance), and childhood recollections of Lydia and Claire (about life with Julia and life after Julia). The reader will also wonder why the police are passive. What is Agent Nolan from the FBI doing? Why would multi-millionaire Paul embezzle only three million dollars from his company? And how does Paul come back from the dead?
This is fast paced. I found it impossible to put down, read it into late one evening, and took a vacation day the following work day. Which I guess makes the novel NSFW. I will read more from this author.