Hello, everyone! The old adage to “never judge a book by its cover” rings true, not because I’m missing out on hidden gems with lackluster covers, but because I keep being seduced into reading terrible books with amazing covers. This week’s regrettable choice was Sarah Pearse’s The Sanatorium. Perhaps I should have taken warning from the fact that the book’s cover blurb was provided by none other than literary Tom Ripley wannabe A.J Finn, who describes the novel as “a splendid Gothic thriller.” Can we stop labelling any novel set in an old building as a “Gothic thriller?” Charlotte Brontë would be appalled!
Synopsis: After suffering PTSD from a murder case gone wrong, Detective Elin Warner takes leave from her job and travels with her boyfriend Will to Le Sommet, a Swiss sanatorium turned luxury hotel, to celebrate her brother Isaac’s engagement. When Isaac’s fiancée Laure goes missing, and a hotel employee winds up dead, Elin finds herself in the middle of a bizarre murder investigation. Trapped by the snow, Elin must work alone to uncover the secrets of Le Sommet’s past and find the killer.
My thoughts: Oh, beautiful cover, you’ve done me so wrong. There is so much that’s *right* with this novel’s setup that it’s almost depressing at how badly it fails in execution. All the elements of a creepy thriller are laid out on a silver platter: the remote location, an old building with a horrific past, a cast of strange characters, a brilliant female detective trying to understand the mysteries of her childhood by solving a mystery in the present. As a genre, the crime thriller could be boiled down to these essential elements, with each new novel simply filling in the blanks like a game of Mad Libs to suit their particular niche. Good crime thrillers, however, still understand that there’s skill required to write a compelling mystery, skill that goes beyond compiling an assortment of buzzy ideas and throwing them at the wall to see what sticks.
The essential failing of The Sanatorium is that while each individual element is superficially compelling, no element is given its proper due. Take the setting, for instance. Upon first look, a tuberculosis sanatorium-turned-hotel hidden away in the snowy Swiss Alps provides the perfect background for murder and mayhem. The Shining and American Horror Story: Asylum are just two examples that demonstrate that this concept can work astoundingly well. While Pearse dedicates time in her novel to describing how the architecture of Le Sommet inspires feelings of dread in her protagonist, she never quite manages to pass these feelings of dread onto the reader. It’s not as if she needs to reinvent the wheel here, as just the word “sanatorium” is enough to evoke eeriness, but Pearse squanders this gift by turning the evil deeds of the sanatorium into a mystery left unrevealed until the final pages of the novel. Instead of Elin’s fear of the sanatorium being driven mainly by external sources, her dread is derived mostly from internal anxiety and PTSD. Not very gothic at all, and a real missed opportunity to immerse the reader in the novel’s setting.
Another of the novel’s failing is Elin herself. Like the detective of many a crime thriller, Elin has problems. Not only is she dealing with PTSD after a bad murder case, but she’s also still grappling with the accidental death of her brother, who drowned when they were children. Her PTSD and paranoia lead her to fear almost every feature of Le Sommet, including wide open spaces, swimming pools, glass windows, and even the snow. While I would sympathize with Elin’s issues if she was a good detective, the fact remains that Elin is a terrible detective. She comes to the wrong conclusions at every junction, and then proceeds to share those conclusions with everyone around her. She ignores the advice of the Swiss police who tell her to stay out of the case because she’s on leave for mental illness, and then proceeds to make incredibly idiotic decisions like agreeing to meet people in abandoned penthouses, following them down into tunnels, and tramping through a blizzard to attempt to catch a suspect. At every instance, she is out of her depth, which only serves to emphasize the novel’s inherent silliness. The only reason that Elin even solves the case is because the culprit is as astoundingly incompetent as she is.
That brings me to the “mystery” itself, which, like all bad thrillers, is a twisty staircase that leads to nowhere. Every mystery needs a red herring to throw the reader off the scent, but The Sanatorium has enough red herrings to make a meal out of. Each section of the book has Elin chasing after a different suspect, each with wildly different motives, only to realize through what I like to think of as Blue Clues Deduction that her hypothesis is actually pointing to THAT SUSPECT, who also isn’t the killer because there’s still 200 pages left in the book. And when Elin finally does discover the killer, their actual motive is so far removed from the meat of the story that it might as well have been pulled from a different book. As we all know, the surest strategy for keeping the killer’s identity a secret is to fabricate a motive that has nothing to do with the actual story and never allude to it in the book.
Couple the insanely silly plot with Pearse’s gimmicky writing style (each chapter is 3 pages long and ends on a cliffhanger), and you have a novel that is more suited to be a CW TV show. Pearse’s style reminds me of thrillers like The Hypnotist and The Nightmare, both Swedish novels that featured 1000 cliffhangers and batshit plots, but instead of attempting to improve on those novels, she took all of their worst elements as inspiration. This is is only her first novel, so perhaps she’s still trying to find her feet, but if she’s going to imitate the style of the genre without providing any of the substance, then I hope she goes back to the drawing board.