Ed Gorman Reviews Heather Lewis's The Second Suspect
I was at a bookstore today and picked up a current crime bestseller. I read the three-page setup and then skimmed the first two chapters. On that basis, I felt I pretty much knew the story. I skipped to the final chapter. Sure enough, everything was resolved as I'd figured it would be. And the "surprise" was telegraphed (literally) on page four. The thing is, I'm usually lousy at guessing the endings of mystery novels. I've read virtually all of Agatha Christie, for instance, and never once figured out who did it until the last page. But psychosexual crime novels have become so prefabricated today a serial killer, sexual sadism, a droning, dull policewoman in distress that the books have become indistinguishable. Lawrence Sanders, Shane Stevens, and Thomas Harris pretty much exhausted this whole subgenre. Or so I thought.
I was, happily, wrong.
If you've become as jaded as I am with the form, The Second Suspect is the book you should buy. Heather Lewis is so skilled and subtle a stylist, so devious a plotter, and so quirky a social observer, she makes the whole psychosexual form fresh and new again.
The setup is simple enough: A wealthy couple, Gabriel and Ingrid Santerre, like their sexual kicks on the dark side. But one night in a hotel room, they kill the prostitute they had booked for the evening. Ingrid turns them in. At this point, detective Caroline Reese is assigned to look into the background of the two, and to see if a case can be made against thecoupledespite their extremely influential political allies. But there's a third party involved, and here the book takes some of its darkest turns.
If I had to liken the book to anything, I'd say it most resembles Clint Eastwood's excellent thriller "Tightrope." As in the Eastwood film, the protagonist here is forced to look at some of her own dark impulses as she investigates the killers. Lewis is careful never to overplay her hand. She lets minor surprise pile on minor surprise without ever resorting to bombast. Her spare and sometimes elegant prose stays with you far longer than the noise and gruesomeness of most novels dealing with these particular themes do. There is a muffled sorrow, a distant scream, on nearly every page. As storytelling, it's nonstop. Lewis hooks you with an odd, moody little setup scene and then never lets go. And the tone only enhances the tale. There's an oppressive, skewed flavor to the writing, madness observed by the mad, and this lends a menacing undertow to the entire book.
Bestsellers still tend to be too long. I suppose it's the giant economy-size principle, more for your money and all that. But if I had to teach a course in contemporary crime writing, I'd certainly use this as one of my selections. Here less is more in every sense pace, prose, power, not a word too few, not a word too many. This is a first-rate crime novel by a first-rate crime novelist, and a very fresh take on some too-familiar themes.
Ed Gorman's latest novels include Harlot's Moonand Black River Falls, the latter of which "proves Gorman's mastery of the pure suspense novel," says Ellery Queen Magazine. ABC-TV has optioned the novel as a movie. He is also the editor of Mystery Scene Magazine, which Stephen King calls "indispensable" for mystery readers.