Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Double Life by Flynn Berry

The mark, or a mark, of a good writer is the ability to make one interested in a subject that one previously considered uninteresting.  In the case of Flynn Berry's new novel A Double Life, I am now interested in Lord Lucan.  

For years I routinely avoided all mention of the Lord Lucan case.  For some reason I instinctively don’t like books about aristocrats.  Or perhaps I am a bad Anglophile - I don't care for kings and queens, Downtown Abbey, dukes, lords, earls, etc.  Castles, no.  Elephant and Castle, yes.  (Corgis, I like.)

I had been reading some of a very good new biography of Agatha Christie by Laura Thompson and I noticed that one of her earlier books was about the Lord Lucan case, A Different Class of Murderer.
  So I started skimming that and it, too, is really good.  So though I was a bit skeptical about whether I would enjoy a novel that is loosely based on the Lucan case, I figured discovering and liking the biography was a sign that I would.  And in this case, that sign was right.

But first, another concern I had about A Double Life.  This is Berry's second novel.  Her first, Under the Harrow, was impossibly good for a debut novel.

So good that it seemed more plausible that she benefitted from some sort of Robert Johnson/crossroads/deal with the devil agreement than just happened to write it all on her own.  I don't mean this to be disrespectful - but most first novels are nowhere near this good (and most other novels as well) and yes, it probably was years of hard work combined with tremendous talent that produced such a good book and not a deal with the devil.  (I had the same feeling about Tana French after I read her debut novel.)  But still, she's very young and she's set the book in a country not her own.  So I don't feel I can be blamed for speculating how she could be so good right out of the gate.  And with her debut novel being so good, I cynically wondered if the new book would fall prey to the sophomore slump.  No, it doesn't. 

A Double Life is the story of a young doctor who has had to assume a new identity and lives in hiding because her aristocratic father tried to kill her common mother back when she was still a child.  The father failed to kill his wife and only succeeded in butchering the nanny.  Possibly with the help of his aristocratic friends, he has fled London and disappeared to a live a new life in exile.  Flynn tells the story of Dr. Claire Alden in flashbacks to her childhood, how her parents met, married, fell out and then ended in tragedy.  We also see the effects of this childhood trauma in her younger brother.  After an encounter with a childhood friend from before the murder, Claire decides to attempt to infiltrate her father's old social circle in an effort to learn his whereabouts.  If these people helped him flee after the murder, they may still be in contact with him.  I thought these parts of the book about how these old elites protect one another were very good.  (Really, the entire book is very good but felt learning why they would protect a murderer was fascinating.)

Since this is a novel of suspense, let's just say the constant threat of exposure of Claire's true identity as she digs for evidence of her father's whereabouts in her old life more than justifies calling this book a thriller.  And the part in the cemetery where she’s standing in the rain over a grave with a shovel brought back or created feelings and reactions that I haven’t felt since I saw Hitchcock’s Rear Window, anytime anyone was about to be caught doing sneaking into an apartment.  

I can't say much more about how things develop without giving away too much.  Maybe those who know all about the Lord Lucan case will expect what happens.  I had no idea and was floored by all that Claire does.  And how it ends.  A Double Life is a tremendous thriller and at the same time I felt it was very moving, which is a difficult combination to achieve.   The ending is fantastic and it turns out that there are two double lives in this book, one predictable and one satisfying.  I hope I see everyone reading this book later this summer.

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