Hello, everyone! It’s been a brick since I wrote a review of a new book, and I can only blame that on my desire to immerse myself in an 1000+ page novel that I’ve already read ten times rather than get emotionally involved with a new book. Anyway, that sad sack period is over, and I’m ready to review Sarah Pinborough’s crime thriller Dead to Her. It checks off all the boxes on the “crime reads marketed towards women” list: has the word “her” in it, has the word “dead” in it, and has a picture of a hot woman in expensive sunglasses on the cover. The only thing missing is a blurb calling it “the next Gone Girl/ Girl on the Train/ Woman in the Window. Don’t let my snark hide the fact that I actually mostly liked this book! After all, it was praised by Harlan Coben…sorry I mean the unpaid intern who probably writes Harlan Coben’s blurbs.
Synopsis: Marcie Maddox is finally fitting in. As the second wife of wealthy Savannah lawyer Jason Maddox, she’s had to work hard to be accepted by Jason’s tight-knit circle of blue bloods. When William Radford, Jason’s boss and closest friend, returns from a stay in Europe with a new wife 40 years his junior, Marcie is initially suspicious of the woman. Beautiful, youthful, and wild, Keisha reminds Marcie too much of everything that she left behind in her old life, and she tries her best to stay away. But as the women grow closer, old secrets threaten to unravel the lives that they’ve fought so hard to build.
My thoughts: Rich people and crime thrillers go hand in hand. Personally, I love nothing more than reading about the vicious crimes that go on in fancy mansions. Sprinkle in some lesbian romance and extravagant parties and I’m sold. I’ll start by talking about the good elements in the novel before moving onto the bad.
One element that the novel excels at is characterizing the motivations of our two protagonists. Both Keisha and Marcie are second wives, Keisha replacing William’s dead wife, and Marcie replacing Jason’s current one. Often times, the motivations of these “other women” are sketched in broad strokes: greed, lust, jealousy, but Pinborough chose these women as her protagonists, so she humanizes them by giving them checkered pasts. Instead of being a homewrecker, Marcie is framed as a struggling waitress who clung to Jason as a way out of poverty. Instead of being portrayed as a gold digger, Keisha is shown to be a girl desperate to escape her abusive relatives, and naive enough to believe that an old rich man might love her for more than her body.
Of course, our perspectives of these women grow more complicated as the plot thickens, but it’s impossible for us to hate them as easily as if they were secondary characters in another woman’s story. Interestingly enough, it’s the first wives who are played off as more villainous, which gives the protagonists’ voices authenticity, even if it makes sympathizing with them difficult. Marcie see herself as the victim even as she steals another woman’s husband. It’s a tip-off that this won’t be a story about “good” people, but what thriller about wealthy people ever is?
I really enjoyed Pinborough’s take on the relationship between a wealthy widower and his young second wife. The idea of a twenty-year-old marrying a man three times her age in the hopes that he will die soon and leave her his estate is so common that it’s played off as a joke, but Pinborough digs deeper into the tensions implicit in such a relationship. She explores the revulsion that Keisha feels when she sleeps with William, and William’s cringe-worthy attempts to make himself seem younger. She also draws attention to the power-imbalance inherent in such a relationship. In one chapter, Marcie quotes the age-old adage that a “woman who marries for money will earn every penny,” and the truth of that proverb is evident in how William controls Keisha’s every move in exchange for giving her financial security. Marcie, too, despite marrying a man she’s attracted to, realizes how dependent she is on his wealth once events force her to fend for herself. Pinborough leaves the reader in an uncomfortable space, caught between pitying these woman, and blaming them for landing themselves in such a subservient position.
An interesting wrench in the conventional story of competing women is the romance between Keisha and Marcie. When Marcie first sees Keisha, she is immediately drawn to her, but also jealous of her youth and beauty, even though the two woman are only about a decade apart in age. Marcie suspects Keisha of trying to get close to her in order to steal her husband, when in reality, Keisha is trying to get closer to Marcie. The scenes between them are surprisingly sweet for a novel so mired in the muck of human pettiness. Dead to Her is not a romance, however, and no idyll lasts forever. While in the first part of the novel Pinborough contrasts the loving relationship between Keisha and Marcie against the hostile relationship between the women and their husbands, she shifts gears in the second half, showing that even in a more equitable relationship between women, there will still be a power struggle. If there’s any lesson to take away from the novel, it’s that in love and life, there’s only room for one at the top.
As a drama or character study, Dead To Her is a compelling novel, but as a crime thriller/mystery, it loses some of its steam. The actual crime doesn’t take place until the last third of the novel, and because of the pacing, I can’t decide whether that’s a good or a bad thing. I don’t think there would have been enough of a mystery to have sustained the suspense for the entirety of the novel, and placing the crime in the back-half of the book makes the last third more exciting. Even though I guessed the culprit almost immediately, I was still racing to the end to get to the conclusion.
The weirdest part of this novel is the voodoo. Even though the novel is set in Savannah, Georgia, the voodoo feels like a stereotype that someone who doesn’t understand the culture would throw into the mix to create suspicion and intrigue. There are elements of magical realism in the novel, like a voodoo queen who can seemingly appear and disappear at random, that seem cribbed from a different world and make the novel difficult to take seriously. At one point in the book, Marcie accuses one of the black characters of using voodoo to control her, and the woman is so (rightfully) offended that she slams the door in her face and tells her to “go ask some white ladies.” If the voodoo was a red-herring from the perspective of a confused and uninformed white woman, it would be more palatable than the reveal (SPOILER) that everything that happens in the novel is in fact caused by voodoo magic cast by an evil villain whose powers are so great that she can manipulate the criminal justice system. Now that is magic. Is it racist that two out of the three black characters in the novel know voodoo? You be the judge. It definitely feels like something that a white woman who self-admittedly only spent a week in a Savannah Airbnb would write.
While I wasn’t surprised by the mystery’s big reveal, I was taken aback by the “twist” ending. Every novel has a twist ending these days, but the questions posed by the conclusion of this novel actually left me pondering for a few minutes. Sacrilege, I know, but the ambiguity reminded me a little of Gone Girl, namely because I didn’t know what the fuck actually happens to these characters after the last word. Pinborough leaves us with a coda that assures her readers that even though wrongs have not been righted, everyone will get their dues. We just won’t get to see it. Whether or not you like cliffhangers, Pinborough’s choice is at least more intriguing than the inauthentic happily-ever-after that usually comes at the end of these mean-spirited crime thrillers.
Final thoughts: Dead To Her doesn’t match up to some superb crime thrillers (Pretty Girls I’m looking at you), but it’s diverting enough to pass the time. The characterization is strong, the romance is spicy, and the intrusive glance into the marriages of the über-wealthy is fascinating. That said, you really don’t need more than five brain cells to read this, and even with three you’ll probably solve the whodunnit. She dunnit, that’s who.