First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Catherine McKenzie Lake Union Publishing for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with this review.
International bestselling author Catherine McKenzie presents readers with a stellar mystery that unfolds in a highly unconventional manner. Julie Prentice and her family arrive in a seemingly bucolic community tucked in the corner of Cincinnati, hoping to put their past behind them. Having fled Tacoma because of a stalker, the Prentices hope to hit the proverbial reset button on Pine Street. Greeted with a welcome basket and note from Cindy Sutton, the self-proclaimed Chair of the Pine Street Neighborhood Association. (PSNA), Julie and her family soon realise that this is not the laid-back row of houses with picket fences for which they were searching. As a full-time writer, Julie is home all day, alone while her husband and children attend work and school. In the early stages, her only social interactions are with John Dunbar, the neighbour with whom she runs early mornings. This fitness regimen soon blossoms into a friendship, where they can swap ideas and complain about the mind-numbing and fascist ways Chairperson Cindy seeks to regulate every aspect of the Pine Street community, down to pet walking and suggested curfews for those with children under 17 years of age. When John loses his job, he ends up spending more time at home, which offers Julie the chance for more time around her neighbour. An IT specialist, John soon notices some weakness in Julie’s computer network and offers to assist. This seemingly innocent act sticks in the craw of the reader, who is fully aware of the stalker situation that has pushed the Prentices to Ohio. While she is proud of her first novel, The Murder Game, Julie is torn about admitting who she is to those around her, though her secret is soon revealed in one of the weekly PSNA e-newsletters. As John grows closer to Julie, the latter continues to make a bad impression on most of her neighbours, particularly Cindy and John’s wife, Hanna. As the story unfolds, McKenzie takes the reader through an ever-advancing timeline, a twelve-month arc, where an event has occurred, vaguely defined but that is fleshed-out as the narrative advances; something so horrid that no one wishes to mention it other than to call it ‘the accident’ but that also requires legal intervention. As Julie alienates herself from the neighbours and must sever ties with John for reasons of marital stability, she finds herself feeling more isolated than ever before, which creates a feeling of instability and heightens her sense of vulnerability. This is exacerbated as new actions and events occur around her home. Has Julie’s previous stalker returned, or are the neighbours trying to drive her off Pine Street? All this, and the elusive ‘accident’ to which McKenzie refers as she advances the plot, keeps the readers guessing until the last sentence. A well-crafted piece of fiction that will keep readers guessing, wondering, and hoping as the peaks and valleys of the non-linear plot develop.
This is the first novel of Catherine McKenzie’s that I have read and I am kicking myself for waiting so long. When I received an advance copy of her next book (read on to see how it ties in), I thought I ought to begin here, laying the groundwork to better understand the author and her writing style. McKenzie shows that she is able to create wonderful characters, all of whom are believable and varied, which caters to the vast array of readers who will pick up this book. The plot is wonderfully paced and, while it advances over a year, it is peppered with flash-forwards to the present, which deal with a vague and somewhat opaque legal issue that has a number of the characters testifying before a grand jury. McKenzie uses the interesting technique not only of segmenting events in month-long chapters, but also by handing the narrative voice to a few key characters, Julie Prentice and John Dunbar. This allows the reader to feel a stronger connection to these protagonists, rather than a beige omnipresent narrator who can only present superficial thought processes. Of greatest interest is the novel for which Julie ‘Apple’ Prentice is so well-known. Its plot is hinted at throughout and the eventual dust jacket summary appears in an early chapter. Whether this is based on an event from Julie’s time in law school remains unknown, though McKenzie does offer the backstory of a friend’s death in Julie’s student days. The Murder Game, this blockbuster story hinted at in this novel is the next published work that McKenzie will release in the coming weeks (and the book I mentioned above that NetGalley has offered me). So, while there will be little to resolve the cliffhangers or ideas that fall within this novel, The Murder Game might pave the way towards better understanding Julie Prentice and some of the characteristics she presents in this McKenzie novel. Why not read The Murder Game first, as it stands two years before the happenings of this novel? I thought I ought to check out all the hype and discover how lured in I would get, then see if I can create some ‘aha!’ moments for myself by reading the Apple novel. Bring on ‘The Book’ as Julie calls it, which I am sure will be stellar, as it is sure to hold McKenzie’s powerful writing punch. I might, however, need a night to pick my jaw up from off the floor, as I remain amazed at how drawn I was to all aspects of this story.
Kudos, Madam McKenzie for this stellar piece of work. How have I not known about you for all these years? I won’t lament it and be glad I did. Now then, The Murder Game awaits!