Under Your Skin by Sabine Durrant © 2014, Atria
Missing You by Harlan Coben © 2014, Dutton
Two Books with a murder mystery element I read recently on long flights. I review them together to compare a surprise reveal done well versus one which ruined an otherwise decent story.
In Missing You, Coben employs his usual devices—a main character pining for an old love, false identities, a missing person, and a crime gang. This time, the formula mixes a policewoman, online dating, and a robbery/murder enterprise. The murder mystery element is who killed the policewoman’s cop father twenty years ago. The murder, for reasons not clearly explained, led to the policewoman losing her one true love. The Coben formula still works well, because he creates a damaged but dedicated main character you want to see succeed and bad guys you really want to see cut down. It was a fast, fun read I highly recommend.
When Missing You reveals who killed the cop father twenty years ago, it is a surprise, but not a baffling one. Elements that led to the crime were in the story from the get-go, and the reveal simply pieced them together, particularly that not-clearly-explained breakup between the policewoman and her one true love. The reveal was an Ah-ha! rather than a what-the-fu**? moment.
Which brings me to Under Your Skin. Durrant’s book is about a woman TV show host who discovers a murder victim and then is falsely accused of committing the murder. The woman, with the aid of another journalist, seeks to uncover the real killer and clear her name, only her investigation ends up pointing to someone close to her. The book was a bit slow, dwelling on too many mundane daily details, but it presented a damaged but dedicated main character I wanted to see succeed. I stuck it out to the end, waiting for the Ah-ha! about the real killer.
Unfortunately, I got a what-the-fu**? Spoiler alert, but it turns out the real killer was the main character all along. Absolutely nothing in the story to that point gave any indication it was her, particularly, and most importantly, her personality in the preceding 350 pages. It reminded me of a grade school essay where a kid spins an exciting fantastic story and ends it with “and then I woke up.” Nothing before the surprise really meant anything, just the author playing a trick on you.
That was Under Your Skin, a long effort at deceiving the reader, where only the last 10 or 20 pages meant anything. Lesson? Stories are about characters—what’s driving them and what’s limiting them. Characters should change throughout a story, but for reasons that make sense in the context of the story. Creating a surprise by just hiding a character’s real qualities is artless manipulation (see Gone Girl). Coben got it, Durrant didn’t. Missing You is staying on my shelf. Under Your Skin is being recycled.