Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mystery Book Review: 13 1/2 by Nevada Barr

Mysterious Reviews, mysteries reviewed by the Hidden Staircase Mystery Books, is publishing a new review of 13½ by Nevada Barr. For our blog readers, we are printing it first here in advance of its publication on our website.

13½ by Nevada Barr


Vanguard Press (Hardcover)
ISBN-10: 1-59315-553-0 (1593155530)
ISBN-13: 978-1-59315-553-7 (9781593155537)
Publication Date: September 2009
List Price: $25.95

Review: Nevada Barr, author of the Anna Pigeon mystery series, pens her first stand-alone thriller, 13½.

One night in 1971, 11-year-old Dylan Raines is convicted of murdering his mother, father, and baby sister, and severely injuring his older brother Richard. Convicted by a Minnesota court, and sentenced to juvenile detention until his 18th birthday, and the state penitentiary thereafter, he doesn't profess his innocence, but rather his inability to remember anything that happened that night. Thirty-six years later, Polly Farmer Deschamps, a divorced mother of two young girls, meets Marshall Marchand, an architect helping to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans. They are married but shortly afterward Polly notices Marsh seems troubled ... and when she begins to explore his past, she concludes she may not know the man she married, and to fear for the safety of her children.

The best thrillers typically have unexpected twists, or something to surprise the reader along the way, but there is nothing unexpected or surprising in 13½. The author makes little effort to disguise the fact that the Marchand brothers in 2007 New Orleans are, in fact, the Raines brothers of Minnesota in the late 1960s, and that the murders of the Raines family members described early in the book are not quite what they seem. Nor is the identity of the mysterious Woman in Red all that mysterious. Even the title doesn't make a lot of sense: "13½" is a prison tattoo that signifies 12 jury members, 1 judge, half a chance; but there is no judge, jury, or trial here ... nor is there a prison. Maybe the title has a more subtle meaning, but if so, it's not clear what it is or how it relates to the story.

The briskly paced and exceptionally well-written narrative overcome much of the predictability of 13½. The significant plot holes are a little harder to ignore. Elements of psychological suspense are introduced in a very convincing way, however; here's a passage that effectively conveys the confusion of one of the characters: "Leaning into the psychic wind, he pushed forward two more staggering steps. Outside the master bedroom the mental storm reached gale force. Holding onto the door frame, he tried to overcome the need to go in. Three times this evening he'd made the pilgrimage through the stairwell's nightmares to this room to see if it had reappeared. He didn't know whether this time would be a relief or further proof that he should get to know his wife's razor more intimately." But too little is subsequently developed or advanced in this regard, and given the outcome is known in advance, the reader is left somewhat dissatisfied in the end.

Special thanks to Jane Wesman Public Relations for providing a copy of 13½ for this review.

Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved

Buy from Amazon.com

If you are interested in purchasing 13½ from Amazon.com, please click the button to the right. 13½ (Kindle edition) is also available. Learn more about the Kindle, Amazon's Wireless Reading Device.

Synopsis (from the publisher): In 1971, the state of Minnesota was rocked by the “Butcher Boy” incident, as coverage of a family brutally murdered by one of their own swept across newspapers and television screens nationwide.

Now, in present-day New Orleans, Polly Deschamps finds herself at yet another lonely crossroads in her life. No stranger to tragedy, Polly was a runaway at the age of fifteen, escaping a nightmarish Mississippi childhood.

Lonely, that is, until she encounters architect Marshall Marchand. Polly is immediately smitten. She finds him attractive, charming, and intelligent. Marshall, a lifelong bachelor, spends most of his time with his brother Danny. When Polly’s two young daughters from her previous marriage are likewise taken with Marshall, she marries him. However, as Polly begins to settle into her new life, she becomes uneasy about her husband’s increasing dark moods, fearing that Danny may be influencing Marshall in ways she cannot understand.

But what of the ominous prediction by a New Orleans tarot card reader, who proclaims that Polly will murder her husband? What, if any, is the Marchands’ connection to the infamous “Butcher Boy” multiple homicide? And could Marshall and his eccentric brother be keeping a dark secret from Polly, one that will shatter the happiness she has forever prayed for?

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