House. Tree. Person. by Catriona McPherson is an unnerving novel of domestic suspense (available September 8, 2017).
Many have fudged a bit on their resume to get a good job, but Ali McGovern takes it to a higher level when she applies for a position as a beautician and art therapist at Howell Hall, a psychiatric institution. She is a beautician. In fact, she once owned her own thriving salon. But after her husband Marco’s restaurant crashed and burned (metaphorically), taking Ali’s salon down with it, the couple and their sullen teen son, Angelo, have moved to a—shall we say—less ostentatious home in a decidedly downscale neighborhood compared to where they were. It’s an adjustment, and it was a rather public fall. It seems like the neighbors are just waiting for them to mess up, and Ali figures that probably won’t be too hard. In her eyes, she doesn’t have a whole lot to lose.
Working my way round the back of Auchencairn, old ladies frowning through their nets to see who it was, I decided to do something only poor people do.
I decided to lie my way into a job. And not just a bit of spit and polish on the old CV, like everyone—sole responsibility for day-to-day running, cash handling, managerial experience. I decided to tell big, fat, dangerous porkers, to defraud people who needed to count on me, to short-change people who needed more than I could give them. I reached over, took the thin green folder with my true-life history in it and threw it in the back seat, leaving the plump, buff folder with the resume that was going to land me this job sitting there under my good black handbag, ticking like a time bomb.
Speaking of Howell Hall—it makes a big impression on Ali right at the outset:
With a closer look, you could tell Howell Hall was something different. The keypad entry at the front door, the reinforced glass in the downstairs windows, the bars over the plain glass of the windows on the bedroom floor, and round the corner a high chain-link fence separating the garden, with its many benches and its spacious gazebo, from the open drive.
There was someone in that gazebo. I didn’t stare but I could tell even from the corner of my eye that they were dressed in night clothes. No one wore pale pink trousers and a pink fluffy mackintosh. Those were pyjamas and a dressing gown, so that was a patient. One of the special needs clients of my so-called wide experience.
To Ali’s shock, she does get the job at Howell Hall after presenting her padded (by Marco, no less) resume to the intimidating Dr. Ferris. The new job takes some getting used to, but Ali is no wilting violet. Plus, her wry sense of humor (her cynicism is finely honed because of recent life events) actually gets her pretty far with the staff and some of the residents of Howell Hall—especially Julia, an 18-year-old girl who is supposedly at Howell because of a personality disorder. But Ali’s spidey-sense tingles when she’s around Julia.
To add to their seeming good fortune, Marco gets a good job too, and things seem to be on the upswing. But when a body is found in a nearby abbey, Ali has a bad feeling. That damn abbey has creeped her out since they moved in, and this just compounds it.
Of course, as soon as Angelo clapped eyes on the Abbey, he wanted to go exploring and I went with him, big lunk of fourteen though he was. Too many things had gone wrong too fast and I was holding on tight, grabbing any chance of him showing an interest in anything—even this—to see if I could get him talking.
The grass around the ruin had looked like velvet from a distance, but it was lumpy and uncomfortable to walk on. Fallen masonry, I told myself, but I couldn’t kick the thought that it was coffins, or even bodies with their coffins long rotted away.
It doesn’t help Ali’s state of mind that Angelo is acting strangely (even more so than a normal teen acts), and he seems a little too shifty for her comfort on the night the body is found. He later tries to play it off as girl trouble, but Ali’s not sure how much she believes that. Ali is increasingly suspicious that something strange is going on at Howell Hall, and Ali is hearing voices in her head again.
When Ali reveals—over the course of the story—her history with mental illness (she had a breakdown about 10 years ago), her status as a reliable narrator starts to blur a little. But that’s part of the fun. What’s really going on at Howell, and is it all in Ali’s imagination?
Catriona McPherson knows how to lay on the creep and keep it building for maximum effect, and her talent for domestic suspense is second to none. Parents, especially of teenagers, will especially identify with Ali and her determination to relate to her son. Even jaded mystery readers will appreciate how McPherson reveals the truth about that dead body in the Abbey. This suspenseful, paranoid, and eerie story is why I love mysteries and suspense. Get a hold of this one ASAP.
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