I really, really liked this book. I actually only picked it up because I recently heard about the sequel, The Likeness, and figured I should read this one before I read the second one (which I will picking up very soon - not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that I'm currently taking advantage of the free trial of Amazon Prime - I already have a huge to read pile due to my past month of Barnes and Noble visits).
The initial set up and description reminded me of Mystic River. One summer day over twenty years ago, a trio of young friends from the neighborhood go play in the woods. After the search parties start searching only one of them is found, clinging to a tree, scratches in his t-shirt, and blood in his shoes. The other two, Peter and Jamie, are never found. Obviously the parallels aren't perfect but it is still that idea of one summer day changing things forever for a trio of friends, though in this case it is unclear what happened to two of them.
In the novel's present day, Rob Ryan, the narrator, and his partner Cassie Maddox are sent to Knockaree investigate the murder of a twelve year old girl, the same neighborhood and woods where Rob Ryan was found as a 12 year old when his two best friends disappeared. He is very conflicted about this case, afraid that it might be connected to his case, but also hoping it will help him find answers. Since twenty years ago everyone knew him as Adam Ryan, the connection isn't obvious, and Rob is able to keep the investigation despite the possible conflict of interest. Cassie is the only one who knows of this, and she helps him hide the connection from their supervisor.
For the first half or two thirds of the novel, there is no clear answer. There are various possibilities as to the identity of the murderer but motive and evidence point to no one. Cassie took courses in psychology and is the closest the department has to a profiler, and something about the murder seems odd, forced. Katie, the victim, was a 12 year old ballet student about to leave the neighborhood for a prestigious dance school - was it a random pedophile or a jealous neighbor? Something seems off about the family - perhaps abuse? Her body was found at an archeological dig in the area, and the site was about to be destroyed by a new motorway - was it retribution or a warning to her father the leader of the local "Move the Motorway" movement? Or is it a serial killer returned? Nothing makes sense despite Cassie, Rob and Sam's best efforts (Sam was the third detective on the case to help the two partners - a new trio of sorts which parallels rather nicely with Rob's original friends).
At first I suspected everyone, even Rob (actually, especially Rob) - after all, I believe there is an Agatha Christie novel (or possibly just a short story) that uses that exact set up - have the murderer be the narrator that seems just as baffled about the crime as the readers and the rest of the characters. Also, given this opening paragraph to Chapter 1, it sort of makes sense to doubt him:
What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover's ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much . . . What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this - two
things: I crave the truth. And I lie. (3-4)
I generally don't go on about descriptions or language, but I actually really enjoyed the writing style. As the novel progresses, the case clearly affects Rob more and more. It affects all of them, of course, but given Rob's emotional involvement, it is not always clear if he is thinking straight. I leave it to everyone else to decide how they feel about Rob as a reliable narrator but I actually felt like he was rather honest. It was easy to see when he did things I disagreed with and despite the fact that he was the narrator, I occasionally thought he was wrong - he did not shy away from portraying himself in an unflattering light as the case went on.
Cassie and Rob have been partners for two years when they get the case, and they have been the perfect pair - she was the only woman in the murder squad, and she and Rob just clicked. They are not dating despite the vibe they give off and they have an incredibly a strong bond and trust between them but there are early hints that something has changed by the time Rob begins writing his story. Rob mentions early on that they spent about a month on the case, but it was a crucial and defining month in their lives that would change things.
While the case is of course important and there are small clues throughout (I caught one early on though it concerned a weapon rather than a suspect), the relationships within the novel are just as interesting and important if not more so than the case. Additionally, Rob struggles with his past - he has forgotten almost everything from before he was 12, and spends the novel trying to face and recapture his old memories. I'm not sure if I am really doing this novel any justice at all but it was much more than a simple murder mystery novel, and the characters (at least Rob and Cassie) were well-developed and I will definitely be reading the sequel soon.