Book Review: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

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Billed as “contemporary noir” with rapturous praise from authors like Dennis Lehane and Mark Billingham, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart is Peter Swanson’s first novel, developed and extended from what was originally a novella. You can tell. It’s one of those novels that is short and yet still feels too long. The writing is uninspired, the main characters are dull and the plot, which is supposed to be an homage to old-fashioned, Maltese Falcon-type detective stories, is instead a poor imitation.

I suspect the title of this book was a deliberate attempt to reel in the readers of books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. It obviously worked with me. As the book progressed, I began to wonder how the title was going to be justified. And then suddenly, quite close to the end, there it was: a description of the main female character as a girl without a heart, with a clock in its place. But rather than being the payoff it should have been, instead it felt like it had been dumped there without much thought simply to pacify people like me. A more apt title would have been “The Boy with a Penis for a Brain”, because the main male character basically lets his libido make his decisions for him and it should come as no surprise that they all turn out to be the wrong decisions.

George Foss is rapidly approaching middle age without much to show for it. He’s had an on-again, off-again girlfriend for over a decade. He’s the business manager at a dying literary magazine. He lives in a stifling attic apartment with his cat, Nora. And he’s never really gotten over his first love, Liana, who he hasn’t seen for more than twenty years because she’s been on the run from the law that whole time. When he spies Liana sitting at the bar of his local drinking establishment, he’s not sure that it’s her. But as soon as she gets up and walks to the bathroom, his uncertainty disappears.

Liana tells him that she’s in trouble. She’s stolen half a million dollars from her boss and she wants to return it, to set things right, but she’s afraid to face him. Will George do it for her? she asks. He’ll be safe, she promises. After all, it’s her that her boss is angry with. He agrees (penis decision #1). After Liana’s boss is murdered soon after George delivers the money, the police arrive on his doorstep and penis decisions #2 through #10 unfold rapidly. He lies to the police. He lies to his on-again, off-again girlfriend. He lies to the private detective hired by the niece of the murdered man. All because he wants to see Liana again (she’s disappeared by now). Not because he thinks she couldn’t have had anything to do with the murder, but because he’s sure she wouldn’t have just dropped him in the middle of this mystery and left him to be a fall guy.

This book feels very much like a paint-by-numbers effort. All the ingredients are there – the pining man, the woman with a past, the treasure, the heavies, a liberal sprinkling of sex, the police who aren’t sure whether the pining man is guilty or stupid, the other woman who gets beat up to make the pining man feel responsible, the not-quite-poetic poetic ending – but instead of being carefully measured and lovingly combined, they are all thrown into the mix at once and beaten to death, then baked at a high heat instead of being hard-boiled like all good detective thrillers are.

The film rights have been acquired so we may or may not see a movie version. It might lend itself more to the silver screen if it’s in the hands of a good writer and director who know how to strip back all the eye-rolling moments.

But it’s unoriginal. The femme fatale was as appealing and intriguing as a Raggedy Ann doll and the leading man was more like a following boy. I’m trying to find a redeeming feature but I’m really struggling. It was like reading a first novel that should have remained in the bottom drawer of the writer’s desk while he refined his technique, learned how to properly portray and develop interesting characters and imbue his story with genuine thrills and spills.

This was one of the more disappointing books I have read in quite some time.

2 stars

*First published on Goodreads 25 March 2016

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