Review: This is How it Ends by Eva Dolan

This is How it Ends by Eva Dolan is a standalone psychological thriller that examines friendship, suspicion, and betrayal (available March 13, 2018).

Best known for her Zigic and Ferreira crime series, This is How it Ends is Eva Dolan’s first standalone thriller, and after reading it, there is no doubt that her career is in zero danger of ending anytime soon.

Disclaimer: I have been an online friend of Eva Dolan’s since I began writing crime fiction in 2010. I haven’t read her series, but I am a fan of her short fiction, and I was eager to read this book. So I had very high hopes for it. You know, the kind of hopes that are often dashed when a book doesn’t meet your expectations?

Well, no worries here. The book exceeded my every expectation. It is a masterful thriller that slowly ramps up the tension and keeps the needle pinned until the very last page.

Set in the ever-more-gentrified London, she wastes no time in introducing the story: Ella, a young, anti-gentrification activist, calls for help from Molly, an old leftist with a sharp tongue and sharper mind, because she is in serious trouble. They are at a party to benefit the tenants of a mostly-abandoned apartment tower slated for demolition—if the few remaining occupants can be lured into taking payoffs or forced to leave. In one of the abandoned flats, we find Ella with the body of a young man.

It was an accident.

Except neither Molly or Ella can face a police investigation. Whether it was an accident or not, they must make it look like one. And when the police find the body, their world begins to implode like a sturdy old building about to be destroyed to make way for the voracious gods of urban progress.

The book alternates between Ella and Molly. Molly is an elder woman who lives in the doomed tower, an activist who cut her teeth at the Greenham Woman’s Peace Camp and became a famous photographer but never sold out. She takes Ella under her wing and wants to guide her from making the same mistakes she did, to help her be the next wave of activism in the post-Thatcher era where profit is its own end and anyone in its way is grass for the thresher. And Ella needs her help. She’s in trouble, with a dead body at her feet and a control-freak lover named Dylan, whom she can’t say no to.

The characters are well-drawn, and Molly’s melancholy helplessness in the face of the London juggernaut doesn’t descend into dreariness because she’s smart, funny, and refuses to act her post-retirement age. She has Callum, a younger former soldier who joins her to watch TV and “chill” in her place, and his mysteriousness draws us in. We know he’s not a suspect; Dolan keeps us entertained with other mysteries of motivation and whether people are who they profess to be.

Molly doesn’t hate the new, rich, young people who are taking over her neighborhood, which makes her easier to sympathize with:

From my spot, tucked back under the shadow of the balcony, I can see into the new tower. At night it seems more glass than not, long expanses of it exposing sleek black kitchens and living rooms with huge sofas and factory-painted abstract expressionism, bedrooms too pristine for anyone to ever fuck in. They are shrines to pressed white shirts and red-soled shoes and the greedily acquired symbols of urban affluence bought by people who probably grew up like me. Out in satellite towns dreaming of different versions of themselves, dressing them up like dolls, mentally testing them out in new stage sets. 

I wonder how the reality is holding up. I should feel hatred towards them, I suppose, but I can’t. I see the hours they work and how their heads hang as they strip off their suits in the burnished light of the bedrooms before they trudge towards their rainforest showers. I know they’re killing themselves for that eight hundred square feet of high-spec living.

They would reject my pity but they have it all the same.

The flashback chapters with Ella are just as compelling; she seems easily led and dependent on medication, but she has a way of bringing people together, organizing them, and like all good heroes, she emboldens great enemies. Hers is a stalker who calls her a fraud and is intent on exposing her. We soon learn that her background isn’t what we’d expect from an activist who specializes in civil disobedience and flouting laws she considers immoral. Her father is police.

Dolan knows people and writes them exceedingly well. This is Molly, angry:

She sounds so sure of herself. Her voice becoming clipped and prim, how I imagine her mother talks when she’s sending back something in a restaurant or telling the cleaner than her work isn’t up to par and she’ll have to do it again before she can go home.

It’s difficult to choose the best excerpts from Ella’s story without revealing too much, but this wouldn’t be much of a thriller if she wasn’t interrogated by the police at some point, so here is a favorite scene:

Without a solicitor she could claim coercion later. Or worse. 

She wouldn’t do that. Her escape route was nothing so common as playing the victim, but she felt sure she wouldn’t need it. Not this time, anyway. This was a fishing expedition and if she stayed cool, stayed composed, then she would learn more from them than they would learn from her. 

Because the problem with detectives, especially the ones like Wazir who had probably been underestimated her whole life, was the desperate need to display the intelligence people doubted they had. Show them disrespect, scratch that raw nerve, and they would overwhelm you with the evidence of their superiority. 

Another life lesson from her dad and Ella doubted he ever thought she’d use it in this context. It had been advice to help her climb the greasy pole once she was on the graduate fast track. He’d wanted her to understand how the officers above her worked so she could ultimately take their jobs. He had a Machiavellian streak that he’d tried to pass onto her and not much of it had stuck, but she was grateful for moments like this when she could summon his steady voice in her head and have him talk her through an awkward situation.

As the noose grows tighter, we don’t know who to believe. Unreliable narrators have become popular again since Gone Girl, and when done well, they can make the most memorable of thrillers. I won’t reveal much more here, but Dolan plays no tricks on us. The “twists,” as they are, are all well-earned and play out naturally without gimmicks or formulae. I was both entertained as a reader and a writer, admiring the skill required to spin a yarn that evokes historic events—like the miner’s strikes and nuclear disarmament protests—along with the modern tragedies such as the Grenfell Towers fire, relies on character to guide the story, and keeps it compelling for 300 pages.

 

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Thomas Pluck has slung hash, worked on the docks, trained in martial arts in Japan, and even swept the Guggenheim museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture. He is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, his first Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which BookPeople called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.”

Joyce Carol Oates calls him “a lovely kitty man.”

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