Book Review: Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw

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There is a touch of The Girl on the Train in this story, unreliable witnesses, plenty of selfish motivations, interesting characters, great writing. But the plot isn’t mind-blowing and that makes it, like The Girl on the Train, another okay mystery. And there’s starting to be a very big pile of three-star books just like it. It needed a moment that punched the reader in the face unexpectedly but it just didn’t have one.

Iris is a single mother and part-time lawyer. Ray is in a hospital for the criminally insane. When Iris’s mother goes away on a holiday and asks Iris to house sit, particularly to look after the large saltwater aquarium full of fish in her home, she agrees. It takes nothing more than one of the fish dying to set the unfolding of this mystery in progress. The meticulously kept logbook of the aquarium’s conditions has the name “R. Boelens” on it and Iris’s mother’s maiden name was Boelens. Suddenly, Iris can’t rest until she knows who R. Boelens is.

It turns out he’s her much older half-brother. Convicted of murdering his attractive neighbour and her small daughter, he’s been in prison and a hospital for the criminally insane ever since. Still, Iris is intrigued, mostly because her mother never breathed a word of her brother’s existence. She goes to visit him at the hospital and offers to look into an appeal against his conviction, although mostly to find out exactly what happened. He agrees.

The chapters alternate between Ray’s viewpoint and Iris’s viewpoint and while hers are almost exclusively in the present, Ray ventures back into the past about half of the time to show us the events of his childhood and early adulthood that lead him to where he is today. It’s not a happy reflection on the treatment of those who are different.

Originally published under the name Daylight in the Netherlands, which is a reference to Ray, the English version’s title, Girl in the Dark, is a reference to Iris. Ray is a simple man. He calls himself emotionally delayed. Elsewhere he’s called autistic. He doesn’t understand feelings, not others, often not even his own. It’s almost ironic then that it was his story, told from his perspective, that I enjoyed reading the most. Iris is a little annoying and that is only offset by the waste of oxygen client she is dealing with, nicknamed Pissing Peter for gross reasons.

I did figure out who the killer was before the big reveal, mostly because it didn’t seem like there were that many genuine candidates. But it wasn’t an amazing plotline or a smart investigation that helped Iris unravel the true mystery in the end, just a ridiculous amount of persistence that eventually makes the killer decide she needs to be killed off because of how annoying she is. I almost couldn’t blame them.

Iris questions the killer relentlessly (not knowing they were the killer yet), the killer refuses to tell her anything and then right at the end the whole story comes spilling out. It’s very close to the “I’m going to die, tell me everything about your evil plan before you kill me” plea when the hero gets momentarily caught. The hero then spends the length of time it takes to tell the tale planning their escape and the villain is foiled again! Unsurprisingly.

And then there’s a Hollywood ending with a happy family playing on the beach. In the hands of someone like Minette Walters, this book could have been much better. But Marion Pauw relies a little too much on sentimentality instead of story here.

I’d still be interested to read some of her other books to see if she is able to step it up a notch. Because she’s got nearly all the ingredients to be a good, if not great, writer.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 7 April 2017

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