The Murder List

Barbara says I’m supposed to have heard of Hank Phillippi Ryan. Apparently she’s well-known as both a mystery writer and an investigative reporter on Boston television. Although I hadn’t heard of her before, I went ahead and read (actually “listened to” — more on that below) her mystery The Murder List on the strength of a positive review and the fact that it takes place locally. And the verdict is:

it’s pretty good.

Ignore the hype on the book cover as shown here. As I say, it’s pretty good — not “exciting, explosive, relentless,” or “a battle for survival,” but pretty good. The three major characters are all lawyers (well, one is two-thirds of her way through Harvard Law School, but anyone who has successfully completed two years at the Law School considers herself a lawyer already). Now I don’t want to shock you, but all of these characters are somewhat questionable, even though you probably think that all lawyers are 100% ethical, moral, and honest. But do those adjectives describe any of the major characters? Two of them? One of them? Therein lies the principal tension of the narrative.

Speaking of narrative, there’s some potential confusion about narrators here. Several reviews have claimed that there are three different narrators — the three aforementioned lawyers — but that’s not true. Ryan isn’t completely violating Aristotle’s strictures about dramatic form. What she has is three different points of view, but only one narrator. This is common enough, but still potentially confusing.

Here’s the scoop: Some of the chapters are told in the first person, by the law student mentioned above; some are written in the third person, from the viewpoint of her husband; and some are written in the third person from a different viewpoint, that of a Middlesex County Assistant District Attorney. Worse yet, Ryan adopts a common technique in mysteries: some chapters take place in the past, carefully headed “Before,” and some take place at the present time, carefully headed “Now” whenever the time has shifted. So what’s wrong with that? The difficulty lies not so much in the violation of Aristotle’s unity of time — who cares about that today? — but in the bland narration by the audiobook narrator, Angela Dawe. She is competent enough, but she doesn’t make the time designations stand out enough, so it’s all too easy to let those single words pass right by as you’re listening. Also, Dawe (or Ryan?) makes the writing style seem really pedestrian for the first 10% or so of the novel; either the writing gets better after that, or the oral narration gets better, or I just got used to it.

As I wrote above, I don’t want to shock you, but please be careful about trusting anyone too much as you read or listen to this novel. I don’t just mean defendants or witnesses, I even mean lawyers. If you’re careful, and you think about the plot and the characters as the story progresses, you will strike the right balance between too much and too little belief. And you’ll enjoy the book.

One more thing: I mentioned that it takes place locally. When an author is an experienced TV journalist, you expect an accurate portrayal of local color, and you do get that in this book almost 100% of the time. With only a few brush strokes, Ryan paints a picture that captures both the details and the gestalt of various parts of the Boston area: Beacon Hill, Harvard Law, Allston, Cambridge, Newton,… But I do have one nit to pick: she suggests at one point that Brookline is in Middlesex County, but it’s actually in Norfolk (though not contiguous to any other municipality in Norfolk County). Why should that tiny error bother me? Only because an important plot point hinges on a jurisdictional question between Suffolk and Middlesex counties, and it could be significant that Brookline is in Norfolk. But no spoilers here, so I won’t tell you the consequences.

If you like books that explore the criminal justice system in an entertaining way, The Murder List would be a good choice.

Categories: Books, Dorchester/Boston