Hello, everyone! I’m back again to review another murder mystery with a beautiful front cover and a disappointing story. Publishers need to stop enticing me into making such bad judgments over and over by pulling a bait-and-switch with this gorgeous cover art. Am I really supposed to resist a picture of a woman’s delicate hand lying in a bed of red maple leaves? I’m only human! Speaking of a picture of a woman’s hand on a pile of leaves, I’m really tired of gendered book marketing, specifically of how well it works on me!
Synopsis: After growing up in an abusive household, Alice Quentin is no stranger to personal demons, and her profession as a psychologist gives her the chance to save those who can’t save themselves. When Detective Burns asks Alice to sit in on the interview of Morris Cley, a mentally disturbed man who Burns believes is responsible for the recent killing of a woman in Crossbones Yard, Alice is sucked into the disturbing case. Someone is murdering women in the style of Ray and Marie Benson, a serial killing duo whose infamous crimes occurred a decade earlier, and Burns thinks Cley is responsible. But Alice has her doubts, and as she gets drawn further into the case, she must find the killer, or become his next target.
My thoughts: This was a doozy of a book; generic, over-long, and frustratingly easy to predict. Obviously in a genre work like this one you will come across familiar tropes, like hard-bitten detectives with a tragic past and gruesome serial killers, but Crossbones Yard employs so many of the tropes, and with so little originality, that it’s like reading an AI’s attempt at writing a murder mystery.
The first problem is the protagonist Alice Quentin. I can list everything I know about Alice on one hand: she’s blonde, she likes to run, she’s claustrophobic, she has commitment issues, and she makes really bad decisions. Now repeat all of those facts 100 times each, and you can say you’ve read this novel. Alice is less of a character than a collection of characteristics, and even though murder mysteries don’t always provide stellar characterization, they need to provide a protagonist who is more than a series of activities. Seriously, this whole book goes like this: Alice wakes up, Alice goes to work, Alice answers emails, Alice goes for a run, Alice finds a dead body, Alice refuses to speak to anyone about it, Alice goes to sleep. Rinse and repeat for 400+ pages.
Stock characters round out the supporting cast, including bubbly actress Lola, narrow-minded Detective Burns, and obsessive policeman Ben Alvarez. The serial killers at the center of the novel might have been interesting if they weren’t just thin sketches of real-life murderous couple Fred and Rosemary West, whose horrendous crimes make the murders in this book seem tame. The only character who manages to be surprising is Will, Alice’s drug-addicted brother, whose role in the plot is never really clear until the final pages. Author Kate Rhodes imbues Will with a complexity that she never gives her protagonist, let alone the other characters.
I found Rhodes’ prose to be very clinical. Alice is already such a cold character, and combined with Rhodes’ habit of writing scenes that feel more like reporting than storytelling, the novel comes off as impersonal. There was no emotion behind any of Alice’s thoughts or actions, even when it’s apparent that she’s in great distress. This lady is so calm and collected that even in a scene where she’s about to be potentially murdered, she just goes to sleep. I felt like I was reading the perspective of a robot, not a human woman.
Sterile as the prose is, Crossbones Yard still could have been a compelling novel if not for the astonishingly predictable plot. As in, the killer becomes obvious from the third chapter. I need to actually complain about this, so SPOILERS AHEAD!
Around chapter 3 we are introduced to Detective Ben Alvarez, who is the first officer on the scene after Alice finds the first victim’s body. Here’s how we meet him:
The man was standing too close; as if the rules about personal space had ceased to apply.
He leaned over me to release the door, so close that his hair brushed against my mouth. His hand gripped the top of my arm as he helped me out of the car.
“I can manage, thanks.”
“You can hardly stand up.” His fingers were still locked around my arm.
Remember, this is the FIRST time that Alice has met this man, and he’s immediately violating her personal boundaries and touching her without permission. This continues throughout the novel, with Alvarez constantly ignoring Alice’s personal boundaries, ordering her around, touching her, staring at her, and being generally hostile. His behavior and personality are constantly referred to as “macho,” but from his first scene, he came off as a sexist bully. Red flags everywhere.
Even though Alvarez is a police detective, he still set off my alarm bells, and when it becomes clear that the mystery killer has a personal obsession with Alice, I had no doubt it was him. But still, Rhodes spends 300 pages crafting a ROMANCE between Alice and this horrible man, painting all of his obsessive stalking and assault as the actions of a man desperately in love, and even basically gaslighting Alice into falling for him. It was horrible to read, especially since even despite the red herrings, it was clear that Alvarez was the killer. He checks all the serial killer boxes: anger problems, tragic past, resentful of independent women, believes that he is entitled to the affection of attractive women. Rhodes tries to distract the reader with other alternatives for the killer, and like every murder mystery, it’s a game of “which of these five male characters did this?”, but even with such a small pool of suspects, Alvarez stands out as the glaringly obvious one, and not even Kate Rhodes attempt at an enemies-to-lovers scenario can fool the reader completely. It’s like you really want me to believe that Sean the doctor or Will the drug addict murdered all these women when Ben Alvarez the creepy possessive stalker IS RIGHT THERE? AND HE’S BEEN THERE SINCE THE THIRD CHAPTER JUST BEING WEIRD THE WHOLE TIME? Nope. I see him.
You would think that Alice, a psychologist, would see the signs of a serial killer from miles away? That’s literally her job. You would also think that Alice, a woman who breaks up with a completely different ragey man-baby in the first chapter, wouldn’t date another ragey man-baby six seconds later, but that’s giving the protagonist of this novel too much credit. Look, what is she supposed to do, think critically? That is too much to expect from a psychologist.
Overall, Crossbones Yard is a generic murder mystery with an ending you’ll see coming a mile away. There’s not much I can say to recommend it. Perhaps if this is the first murder mystery you’ve read in your whole life, it might seem new and exciting, but for a murder mystery aficionado like myself, it’s a slog to get through. If you really want to read something shocking, just read the actual story of Fred and Rosemary West instead of this watered-down exercise in mediocrity.