The Suicide House, by Charlie Donlea

Don’t let the title scare you away. Without committing any spoilers, I can tell you that it’s a bit misleading. This is another book about a boarding school—but it’s one that is totally different from the Atwater School in All Girls. That book is about a fancy girls’ school in Connecticut; The Suicide House is about the Westmont Preparatory High School, a not-quite-as-fancy coed school in Indiana.

I could assign a “compare and contrast” essay about the two novels. But I’m not going to.

Charlie Donlea’s The Suicide House is fundamentally a psychological mystery, not a study of a prep school. I highly recommend it, though with three reservations. As you can guess from the image here, I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Vivienne Leheny (two syllables, not three!), which may have affected my review. Although I found the story both affecting and effective, I was a bit put off by the tone, which was occasionally too gothic for my taste; that’s where I think I blame the narrator rather than the author. My second and third reservations may also be due to the audiobook format, though in this case they are clearly neither the author’s nor the narrator’s fault: there are many flashbacks, which can be confusing when listening even though the author clearly marks the date each time, and many viewpoint characters, some of which Donlea leaves deliberately ambiguous. That’s fine when reading a print or screen version, but an audio narrator has to pick a voice in which to narrate a conversation or journal entry. Doing that can be puzzling at best and downright misleading at worst if the author is deliberately leaving someone’s identity unclear.

All right, enough kvetching. The most interesting thing about The Suicide House is not so much the rather two-dimensional portrayal of the school but the portrayal of the lead detective, who is clearly on the autism spectrum. As a profiler, she is more helped than hindered by not being neurotypical. Donlea is quite effective at letting us into her mind. This is apparently the second book in a series, but I don’t think I missed too much by not having read the first one. (That’s a guess, of course, but gaps weren’t noticeable.) Subplots about journalism and podcasting also held my attention. They may or may not hold yours, depending on your interest in those subjects.

You will guess the perp well before the ending, but hopefully not too early in the story. It certainly took me a long time to catch on, and then I had a lightbulb moment. Give it a try and see what you think.

Categories: Books