I am writing this review as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team. Thanks to the author for providing me a free copy of the novel in exchange for an unbiased review and to Rosie for the opportunity.
I try to read in a variety of genres (it’s good to keep the brain on its toes, so to speak, and since I joined Rosie’s team I’ve been tempted by the varied offerings of titles I might not have come across otherwise). But whilst for some genres I have to prepare myself and be in the mood, mysteries and thrillers I am able to read in most circumstances.
I liked the title of the novel (I don’t like liars, but an honest liar… well, I prefer that to people who swear blindly they’re telling the truth when it’s obvious they are not) and when I read it was set in the UK and it involved a family whose business was to publish books (and pretty fancy fairy tales editions at that) I knew I had to try it. And it does deliver in spades.
The story is told in the third person from the two main characters’ points of view, Milla Graham (although if she’s really Camilla Graham or her cousin, or somebody else entirely is a big part of the puzzle), a reporter who writes features about musicians and musical events, and Ben Taylor, a detective, divorced, father of a young daughter, and a man always on a mission to rescue somebody (especially damsels in distress, even if they don’t want to be rescued). There are other fragments, in italics, also in the third person, that narrate the event at the heart of the mystery (the night when the Graham’s old house burned down and three children and their mother died), that took place eighteen years before the rest of the novel. The point of view these other fragments are narrated from is not clear as we read them (other than it is somebody who witnessed what happened) but by the end of the novel we have a clear picture of what really happened (although we will have been tripped and wronged in our assumptions many times along the way).
Both main characters are likeable in different ways. Ben is handsome, honest and a good guy, who, as many female characters tell him, seems to suffer from rescue fantasies. He lives in a chocolate box cottage and he meets the other protagonist in a traumatic manner (he runs her over) in the first chapter. His car ends up in a ditch and as he has no other option he invites the stranger, a young woman, to his house. She disappears with some of his money early next morning but she does not disappear from his life. At first sight Ben appears to be a type of character we’re very familiar with (a handsome detective somewhat disillusioned by his job and with his family life in tatters) but his immediate attraction and sympathy for Milla makes him do out of character things that surprise others around him as much as himself. And we get to discover some surprising things about him too.
Milla is, without discussion, quite unique. She lives hand to mouth, has adopted the identity of the dead daughter of a very rich family (it made me think of the stories about Anastasia, the Romanov tsarina who was supposedly still alive), and it’s difficult to know what her real motivations are. Does she really believe she’s Camilla Graham? Is it all part of a hoax to get money? Is she trying to help Patrick Graham, the man who was sent to prison for the murder of his wife (and the real Camilla’s mother)? Is she the cousin of the family now trying to create confusion? Or is she a fantasist who does not know what the truth is any longer? She is determined, resourceful and will stop at nothing to reach her goal. Whatever that might be. And she is open about her lies (and does surprise herself when she doesn’t lie).
The novel features charming English towns, an old mansion that has become a gothic castle in ruins, murders staged to imitate the illustrations of famous fairy tales (with designer clothing and four poster beds also thrown in), a murderer dressed and made-up like the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, mysterious bracelets, and a world of fairy tales that turns very dark.
The main characters are fascinating and likeable and you can’t help but root for them, no matter how outrageous their behaviours. If you stopped to think about it, some of their actions definitely stretch one’s belief, but the pace is so dynamic and the story so intriguing and surprising, that you keep trying to guess what will happen next and enjoy the ride. The writing is descriptive and vivid and one feels a part of the story, or at least a very close witness of the events. Although the crimes described are horrendous, there is no gross attention to the details of the violence, no CSI-style descriptions, and although not a cozy novel, it’s not a hard-edged thriller either. Ah, and there is romance but no explicit sex scenes (or implicit even).
I had a great time reading the novel, enjoyed the satisfying ending and my only disappointment is that being a big fairy tale fan I would have loved to get my hands on the wonderful illustrated volumes of fairy tales described in the novel but unfortunately it won’t be possible. I recommend it to readers of mysteries that prefer an involved story rather than a hard-edged scientific investigation in dark, urban and grittily realistic settings. If you love quirky characters, do not hesitate and give it a try. And I’ll be keeping an eye on Louise Marley’s work for sure.