Book Review: ‘The Woman Before Me’ by Ruth Dugdall

November 1, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

You know how sometimes you read a book cover and think, “This is too bleak for me,” or “I don’t think I’ll be interested in this type of story,” and then the book ends up totally blowing your mind? The Woman Before Me by Ruth Dugdall is one such book.

It’s defined as a crime novel but The Woman Before Me unfolds more like a psychological thriller. The story centers around Rose Wilks, a plain looking woman with a neglected childhood who, after losing her own child, is convicted for burning down a house that killed the baby of her beautiful best friend, Emma Hatcher. Four years pass and Rose, who has maintained her innocence, is up for parole. Enter Cate Austin, a young probation officer assigned to write a recommendation.

The book is essentially split into two inter-meshing parts:  you have Cate in the present, told through third person narrative, investigating Rose’s life and the events that led up to the tragic night in question; and you have Rose’s “Black Book” entries, a first person confessional diary of sorts to her partner Jason which gradually peels away the layers wrapped around the novel’s core mystery — did Rose kill Emma’s baby, and if so, why?

While the book is subtitled “A Cate Austin novel” (as she is the common link in a planned series of books by Dugdall), The Woman Before Me is dominated by Wilks’s diary, which takes up more than half of its 282 pages. And just as well, because although Cate is quite an interesting character herself, Rose is simply mesmerising. She’s creepy and clearly unhinged but somehow I found myself unable to despise her. She is a tragic character driven by the two most unhealthy kinds of love — obsessive and unrequited. Her heartbreak comes across as painfully real.

It’s an uncomfortable book to read at times — any book about infant mortality is — but I found it to be a compulsive page-turner, which got more and more unputdownable as it neared its shocking climax. It’s a strange feeling being compelled to keep reading a book that is, if not quite depressing, often upsetting to get through. I suppose it’s a tribute to Dugdall’s ability to create characters readers care about and invest in emotionally.

As Dugdall’s bio says, she was in the British criminal justice system for almost a decade as a probation officer, which lends an air of credibility to the prison environment she describes with so much detail and confidence. Everything and everyone from the cells, routines, prison rules and culture to the inmates and the wardens all felt authentic to me. And although this is not mentioned anywhere in the book, I discovered through some post-reading research that the novel is actually based on true events (chills).

My idea of crime novels has always been fast-paced action and clever detective work, but The Woman Before Me is all played out in the mind and through memories. The book has been described as a “slow burn”, which is usually a turn-off for me, but I found it to a deftly paced and rather brisk read, something you could easily get through in a single sitting.

My only complaints are Dugdall’s tendency to lessen the impact of some of her minor plot twists by foreshadowing them too early, and her over-reliance on coincidences and chance encounters, some of which stretched the bounds of believability to me.

On the whole, however, I found The Woman Before Me to be a fascinating expedition into the darker side of human nature — and an enjoyable (albeit somewhat depressing) read. I’m sure it will end up as one of the more memorable books I’ve read this year.

PS: It was also fascinating to read up a little about Dugdall and her journey to becoming a published writer. Once again, her story demonstrates that successful published authors rarely come out of thin air and are usually extremely dedicated writers who have been honing their craft for years, submitting writings, entering competitions and attending workshops for a very long time before securing a crucial breakthrough. In her case, the breakthrough came when she won the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger with her The Woman Before Me manuscript back in 2005 (though the book was not published in the UK until 2010) — showing what a long and arduous process it all is. Makes me wish I had more time and determination to work on my fiction writing.

Book Review: The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm

September 6, 2010 in Book Reviews

Janet Malcolm’s famous intro to The Journalist and the Murderer goes like this:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.  He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

And that’s just the first few lines of her short book, originally published in 1990.

The Journalist and the Murderer tells the story of Dr Jeffrey MacDonald, a philandering, narcissistic man accused of killing his wife and two young daughters on 17 February 1970.  In June 1979, a couple of months before he was convicted, MacDonald commissioned journalist Joe McGinnis to write a book about him, hoping that the book will convince the world of his innocence.  The two struck a deal to split the profits, and McGinnis was entitled to write whatever he wanted, “provided the essential integrity” of MacDonald’s life story is maintained.

And so McGinnis officially became a member of MacDonald’s trial team and the two became extremely close friends, or so it appeared on the surface.  McGinnis had access to all of MacDonald’s materials.  In addition, MacDonald sent McGinnis tapes of recorded material, and the two frequently traded letters.  MacDonald believed his buddy was going to write a book that will help exonerate him.

Instead, when Fatal Vision was published in 1983, McGinnis painted MacDonald as a cold, remorseless psychopath that, in his opinion, undoubtedly massacred his family in a drug-fuelled rage.  MacDonald, devastated and angry (though still serving his sentence), commenced proceedings against McGinnis for fraud.  Amazingly, although the trial ended with a hung jury, five of the six jurors had sided with MacDonald, the convicted killer.  Eventually, the two settled out of court for $325,000.

Damn, I just told you the whole story, didn’t I?  Don’t worry, it actually helps to know the story when reading this book, which goes far deeper than just the story on the surface.

The Journalist and the Murderer is a fascinating book, the type of non-fiction that sucks you in and can be finished off in one afternoon sitting.  Having just started doing some journalistic work for my writing course, I found the themes to be particularly gripping — is it okay for a journalist to lie, or lead their subject on, just so they could gather the “truth”?  Is there a line that should not be crossed?  And did Joe McGinnis cross that line?

The book has compiled a number of key interviews with those close to the MacDonald-McGinnis trial, and it was remarkable to see the different stances that the two sides took, especially on the question of whether they thought MacDonald was in fact guilty of the crimes he was convicted for.

The book also contained various letters exchanged between MacDonald and McGinnis that really demonstrates the level of deceit that was occuring, and that MacDonald had absolutely no idea what was coming.

Of course, the fact that Janet Malcolm is also writing this critic of journalism as a journalist adds an additional layer of contemplation and complexity to this book.  In savaging McGinnis of his methods in gathering information, she is only too aware of the methods she is employing herself to get the most out of her subjects.  And one thing I didn’t know was that Malcolm herself was sued for libel by the main character of one of her books, In the Freud Archives.

I liked Malcolm’s style.  It’s bold and it’s cutting, but there’s also a sense of self-awareness to it.  You don’t have to like it to appreciate it.

Terrific read.

4 out of 5

[PS: this was another one of those books where I read the first few pages for my writing course but found it so interesting that I got the whole thing.]

Writing Update: Literary Snobs

June 6, 2010 in On Writing, Study

With a week left before all assessments are due, I have officially begun to shit bricks.  However, in true writer style, I am still trying to put off working on them for as long as possible.

So let me tell you about what’s been on my mind.

Literary Snobs

The more I read and write, the more difficult it has become for me to come across what I consider “good writing.”  Not to say that I have become a good writer or a certified critic by any means, but I do find myself being pickier than ever.  I used to be able to go to a bookstore, pick up any book, start reading and just get into the story.  These days, nine out of ten times I’m too busy finding problems with the writing to enjoy it.  Makes me wish I could go back to the days when I was ignorant about what good writing is and just read everything for what it is.

Having said that, a lot of the books I complain about happen to be critically acclaimed.  Not because the writing itself is “bad”, but because I find it tedious, boring, convoluted, distracting, or hard to follow.

One of my classes drew my attention to A Reader’s Manifesto by BR Myers, a book published in 2002.  In it, Myers attacks literary fiction for being “pretentious” but at the same time protected by literary critics for political reasons or simply because they want to seem “sophisticated” when they really didn’t get it.

Amongst those criticised include award winners such as Cormac McCarthy (especially his newer style) and Annie Proulx, two writers I studied this semester and found very challenging to read (often requiring at least two readings to “get” it).

I found the crticisims highly interesting.  We live in an age where literary fiction is really suffering and genre fiction (especially crime and “vampires”) is making the big bucks.  Why is that the case?  Is it because contemporary society doesn’t have the attention span to properly appreciate literature, or is it because people simply want reading to be a pleasurable hobby that doesn’t require too much mental exertion?  And if the latter is the case, what is wrong with that?  Who is to say that writing must be “good” to be enjoyable or that enjoyable writing isn’t “good?”

I agree with Myers in that literary critics are too quick to heap praise on literary fiction and crap on genre fiction.  But I do think it is a bit of a stretch to claim the writings of award winners such as McCarthy and Proulx have no merit.  While they may be in the minority, there are people out there that truly enjoy high-brow literature for whatever reason.  And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What annoys me is literary snobbishness — people who think readers of genre fiction must be too stupid or uneducated to appreciate literary fiction….and perhaps the opposite too — people who think lovers of literary fiction must have sticks up their butts.  Why can’t we just all agree that people have different tastes and that’s that?

For the original Atlantic Monthly article, click here.

For more information and a summary of A Reader’s Manifesto, click here.

Book Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

March 24, 2010 in Book Reviews

The latest crime fiction phenomenon to sweep the globe is the Millennium Trilogy (over 27 million copies sold) by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson.  The first novel of that series is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the award-winning book that’s just everywhere at the moment.

I see people reading it on the train.  I hear people chatting about it in class (about how lucrative crime fiction is!).  I even overheard someone raving about it in a lift.  “It’s good,” she said, nodding.  “It’s really good.”  So I decided to check it out.

The verdict?  Pretty good, but not worthy of the worldwide craze in my opinion.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is an immensely complex crime novel.  There are two central characters — a disgraced journalist by the name of Mikael Blomkvist, and the wild and unpredictable titular character, Lisbeth Salander, a young security specialist with a difficult past — but there is a whole host of secondary and minor characters, and Larsson has a detailed biography for just about all of them.

The core of the story is actually quite simple.  A journalist is asked to research the mysterious disappearance of a young girl from a wealthy dynastic family, believed to be dead for forty years.  It is the ultimate cold case, made more intriguing by the fact that the island on which the supposed murder took place was sealed off from the rest of the world, limiting the suspects to a number of unique and eccentric characters.

However, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is anything by straightforward.  There are subplots galore, and even the subplots have subplots.  In the way fantasy writers often do, Larsson has really created an entire new world, meticulously researched and thought through, from family trees to chronologies to even complicated corporate structures.

Some people love this type of comprehensiveness, but for me, it was overkill.  Yes, you do get to understand the history of all these characters extremely well, but at 554 pages (my paperback version) there is an awful amount of exposition.  In fact, probably close to an entire quarter of the novel comprises lengthy biographies and back stories of key characters.

To Larsson’s credit, he has created some very interesting characters.  There’s not a lot of black and white — everyone has skeletons in the closet and things they would like to hide, and that’s what makes the novel intriguing to read.  The unusual heroine Lisbeth Salander, in particular, is one of the most original and complex characters I’ve come across.

Another thing that struck me about the book was how dark it was.  It’s clearly not meant for those with an aversion to violence and taboo (but real) subjects.  And underlying all of this is a stern political and social message which Larsson punches into our subconscious.  I suppose the original translation of the book’s title, “Men Who Hate Women”, will give you a fair idea of what I’m talking about.

I’ve already touched upon Larsson’s style (ie lots of exposition), but there’s more to it.  Larsson is great storyteller that likes to feed you lots of information.  The way Larsson has written The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is almost like a detective’s journal at times.  He describes all the daily rituals and mundane activities with as much precision as the fun stuff, like he’s trying to give you a full and complete picture of the characters’ lives.  Again, I can understand why some people like it, but it didn’t get me going as much as I wanted it to.

Don’t get me wrong, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is one of the more intelligent and sophisticated crime thrillers out there.  I read it a lot faster than I thought I would, which must mean it is pretty good.  It ticks the right boxes — a compelling premise, a complex plot and unique characters — but to be perfectly honest, I don’t quite understand the superlatives being heaped onto it.  Maybe I should read the two other novels in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

3.5 stars out of 5

[PS: poor Stieg Larsson died of a massive heart attack at age 50, and all his hugely successful novels were published posthumously.  He was a politically active journalist by day, amateur crime novelist by night.]