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Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Today's New Release: "Missing Pieces" by Heather Gudenkauf

2 Stars

I agree with the title of this novel:  there are missing pieces.  Unfortunately, what is missing are the elements of a good mystery:  a believable plot, convincing characters, and suspense.

Sarah and Jack Quinlan have been married for twenty years.  They return to Penny Gate, Iowa, when Jack’s Aunt Julia (who raised him after the death of his mother Lydia) is injured in a fall.  It turns out that Aunt Julia’s fall is similar to that which resulted in the death of Jack’s mother, a death which was ruled a homicide. Sarah learns about the details of this death only now and discovers that her husband has also withheld many other facts about his past.  She starts investigating her mother-in-law’s murder and unravels more family secrets, ones which begin eroding her trust in Jack. 

Character development is weak.  Sarah and Jack have been married for two decades, but their relationship is very shallow.  Their conversations sound like ones acquaintances would have.  And Sarah’s feelings for her husband change so quickly that it seems that their marriage never had a solid foundation.  Sarah is jealous of a girlfriend Jack had when he was a teenager?  Many of her statements and actions are just illogical and indicate a lack of intelligence.  For instance, she asks someone for help and then when that person tries to be discreet in public about aiding her, Sarah is “still baffled by her odd behavior”?  She orders a Bloody Mary though “vodka always gave her a headache”?  Sarah has to be told that Jack couldn’t have pushed his aunt down the stairs:  “’You and Jack weren’t even in town when Julia was hurt.  There was no way he could have done it.’”?  And to this statement, she sits “back in her chair, dumbfounded [and says] ‘Oh, my God, you’re right’”?!  This is not the type of comment expected from someone who was once a “hard-news reporter, the kind that traveled all over the work . . . covering major international news stories”!   Sarah claims to have “journalistic instinct” but it never seems to work.  She receives strange emails and just dismisses them?

Sarah is not the only person whose behaviour is unrealistic.  An employee of the police department agrees to help her though they have met only once?  And that person is willing to risk losing her job?  And that abettor takes a box containing an entire case file, “’the one file that the sheriff keeps in his office’” and tells Sarah she can have it for a day or two?  And why would that employee include a Walkman so Sarah can listen to the enclosed tapes, when there are transcripts of the tapes?

There are comments made that make no sense.  Sarah believes that the murder investigation into Lydia’s murder is closed (though no one has been charged or convicted).  The sheriff tells her, “’the case isn’t officially closed, just suspended’” but later Sarah twice mentions that “the case is closed.”  Then the sheriff says, “Officially, the Lydia Tierney murder investigation is closed” only to say, a few pages later, “Now I have two active murder cases to investigate.’”  The reader’s head should be left spinning.

The plotting is amateurish.  There is no real suspense since any astute reader will identify the murderer virtually from the beginning:  there is really only one person who could be guilty.  The attempts to create suspense are so obvious and unconvincing.  Sarah leaves her car keys and cell phone in her car which is parked in the middle of nowhere and then she panics when two men in a truck stop to ask if she has car problems?

Clumsiness is used to advance plot.  Sarah stumbles on steps and thereby discovers blood spots.  Her purse catches the edge of a desk and, conveniently, a file which contains vital information flutters to the floor.  Later her elbow shatters some glass jars.  What a klutz!  And even Sarah’s sister-in-law is as clumsy, knocking over a vase of flowers set on a windowsill in Julia’s hospital room; she manages to knock it over though she is described as being close to Julia’s bed, not the windowsill.

Then there is the focus on unnecessary details.  For instance, why is there so much emphasis on how decrepit the hospital in Penny Gate is?  “The hospital was clean but dated.  Institutional-green walls were lined with faded Impressionist prints and the carpet was worn and thin.” And “Sarah’s eyes followed [the nurses] down the depressingly dim corridor.  She noticed on the ceiling that a brown spot had bloomed against the white plaster and rainwater dripped rhythmically into a large bucket below.  She imagined mold and mildew festering behind the walls.” And “The old elevator creaked and groaned and was excruciatingly slow in its descent . . .  The elevator finally arrived at their floor and the doors opened to an empty, quiet hallway.  It was cold and eerie . . . ” And “The stairwell was windowless and weakly lit by dusty fluorescent bulbs.  Cobwebs swung precariously in the corner where drab cement blocks met the ceiling . . . ”

The identity of the murderer is not a surprise but the motive for Lydia’s killing is not believable.  Actually, many of the killer’s actions are illogical.  Why would a murderer email “creepy” messages which could help identify him/her?  Would a killer really leave evidence at a crime scene as “’just my little inside joke’”?

And there are other things that make no sense.   How can a person claim to have seen Sarah “’snooping around Jack’s old room, looking in drawers’” when that person was not in the house, much less in the room?  Then why does Sarah look for a “shoe box with Jack’s name written on it” in her brother-in-law’s house when she saw it in Uncle Hal’s house?  How can she claim the box was “removed” when it hadn’t been in her brother-in-law’s house in the first place?!  A woman who dismisses an old love as “a weak little boy” will then argue that they “belong together”?!  An advice columnist would receive “overtly violent” letters? People keep old farm tools in a bathroom?  A reporter would be repeatedly told “Don’t ask the questions if you don’t want the answers”?  I could go on and on. 

Obviously, some major editing is required.  I had not heard of this writer and so was surprised to learn that she is a “bestselling author.”  Perhaps the many issues with this book are due to the fact that I read an advanced reading copy?  

Note:  I received an ARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.