And She Was, by Alison Gaylin

Recently there has been a Facebook challenge going around to name a book that changed your life. There have been several for me, but certainly one was the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Near the end, as the two hapless courtiers realise that their deaths are imminent, they wonder if there wasn’t a moment when they could have chosen differently, a moment they did not recognise, that slid by and left them on this fatal trajectory.

This idea has haunted me ever since: that I will make the wrong decision or—worse—not realise that I had made a decision that would have awful consequences. Already risk-averse and preferring to keep my options open, I tried to be hyper-aware of turning points. Looking back, I can certainly see the places where a single decision changed my life irrevocably, but at least I was aware of making the decisions and—even though I might choose differently now—am not unhappy with who and where I am as a result.

In the prologue of this book, Carol Wentz, a suburban housewife, has one of those moments. At a neighborhood barbecue, Carol snaps at six-year-old Iris Neff who has demanded a juice box. Later that afternoon, Iris wanders off and disappears, leaving her mother, Lydia Neff, heartbroken and Carol consumed by guilt. For the next ten years, Carol continues to search secretly for Iris, hiring private investigators and joining a missing persons chat room. Then she receives a mysterious phone call that jolts her into renewed action.

With the end of the prologue, we move to the point of view of Brenna Spector, the private investigator to whom Carol turns. Brenna specializes in missing person cases, a legacy of the loss of her older sister, Clea, who stepped into a blue car when Brenna was only ten and never came back. Shortly after Clea disappeared, Brenna developed an extremely rare syndrome called Hyperthymesia causing her from that point on to remember everything she experiences with complete accuracy.

I found Brenna a fascinating character, someone who is constantly dragged into the past and has to develop tricks to keep from disappearing into a memory, forced to relive it completely. I also enjoyed her 27-year-old assistant, Trent, a technological genius who thinks he is God’s gift to women. His bizarre clothing and slang sparkle like rhinestones in the story. Detective Nick Morasco also satisfied my taste for new and interesting characters. Gaylin expertly avoids the cop stereotypes to give us a man with secrets.

As other people disappear, it becomes apparent that everyone has secrets. The joy of the prologue is that the reader knows some things about Carol that Brenna doesn’t. As one secret is revealed, there are always more to keep you reading. Working within the mystery/PI genre framework, Gaylin gives us not only remarkable characters, but also a plot full of twists and turns.

I read a lot of mysteries, partly for the puzzle but mostly because the writing is so often excellent. This story makes me understand that another reason I love them is this idea of secrets. What can we truly know about other people? In mysteries, the detective or PI must peel away the layers that people use to veil their secrets, sometimes revealing things even the culprits themselves are not aware of or moments of decision that slid by without being noticed.

I enjoyed this debut novel immensely and am delighted that there are already two more books in the series.

Have you discovered a new mystery series that you enjoy?

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