Book Review: Play the Fool by Lina Chern

In Lina Chern's darkly comedic mystery Play the Fool, a cynical tarot card reader seeks to uncover the truth about her friend’s mysterious death. Read on for Doreen Sheridan's review!

Katie True is zooming out of her twenties with a dead-end job, no romantic prospects, and a family that, for the most part, thinks she could do better if she would “only” apply herself. Apart from her neurodivergent younger brother Owen, the one person who will listen to her without judging is her best friend Marley, who works in the edgy clothing and notions store across the hall from where Katie peddles Russian knick-knacks. Though Marley is at least a decade older than her, Katie finds herself drawn to the bold redhead, as the two spend their lunch breaks together at an outdoor table behind their slowly dying shopping mall.

It’s on one of these breaks that Katie confesses to Marley her fear that the only thing she’s really good at is reading Tarot cards. Or, as her grifter Aunt Rosie taught her, reading people while ostensibly reading their cards. While so much else in Katie’s life is unfixed, she knows she can rely on her gift to help her get to the bottom of people’s issues:

I just sort of let my mind go blank and catch it all, like one of those giant satellite dishes I’d seen on a science show, standing in the desert, gathering signals from space. There was always a pattern in the noise, a story in code. I laid it out, watching the customers’ faces. Sometimes they didn’t see it. Other times it hit them like a ray of light splashing over what was in front of them all along. You know what? a teary-eyed dad said during my first reading, after he decided to reconcile with his son, who was living on a survivalist organic farm in Montana. You’re pretty good at this. I stared at him as he left. I’d never been good at anything before.

When a gym rat with a gash on his forehead stumbles into her empty store one day, Katie is spurred to do a reading for him. In the process, however, she discovers a terrible photo on his phone, of Marley shot to death beside the dumpster behind the mall. The gym rat runs away before Katie can find out more, leaving her to frantically search for her friend. Everyone else who knows Marley is certain she’s just picked up and left town, but Katie knows what she saw. Besides, Marley would never leave without saying goodbye, would she?

When Katie’s search for Marley finally brings her to the cops, they’re skeptical of her claims. However, her plight does pique the interest of new transfer, Detective Jamie Roth. While he does warn her about the dangers of investigating, he’s surprisingly helpful when her efforts land her in difficult spots, such as when she needs a ride from her parents’ place to work. Unfortunately, this also opens him up to inspection from her entire family:

“Jamie is a police officer,” Owen intoned. “He is not married and has trouble maintaining relationships due to the dangerous and inconstant nature of police work. He has a very symmetrical face.”


My mom’s eyes grew wide, then narrow. “I can see that.” She turned to me. “Well, that clears a few things up.”


“What things?” my dad said.


“That is totally unfair,” I said. It wasn’t. I had a long history of getting absorbed in weird shit for the sake of some dude, as evidenced by the mountains of “gently used” fencing equipment, coin collecting albums, and fusion cookbooks moldering in my parents’ attic.

But this investigation is not about Jamie or even, as Katie keeps telling herself, about anything apart from justice for Marley. Katie is used to finding herself in humiliating circumstances: What difference do a few more make if it means figuring out who killed Marley? But when things go from embarrassing to downright dangerous, will even Katie’s astonishing ability to read people keep her safe from mortal peril?

I loved this charming, clever Tarot-themed novel, and sincerely hope it’s the beginning of a series. I felt so much empathy for a directionless Katie, who’s only jolted into action by some of the most terrible circumstances. I loved the humor throughout, and especially appreciated how the relationship between Katie and Jamie developed over the course of this book. It didn’t feel forced at all, and I’m absolutely rooting for the continuation of what looks to be a healthy and respectful romance, hopefully in more books about this duo and the people around them!

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