He was a mystery to me till the bitter end

never tell book coverNever Tell
by Lisa Gardner

I picked up this crime novel in need of an engrossing, compelling read to get me back into reading. It worked on that level, but it definitely has flaws, primarily that I found the conclusion offensive. So I can’t in honesty recommend this book. If you’re interested in my specific objection, read beyond the spoiler warning below.

For the most part, I liked the characters and the set-up of the crime. The leads are all women and they’re not all broken and/or alcoholics – particularly not the police professionals, which was refreshing. The chapters alternate between three characters: the prime suspect, Evie, a high-school teacher pregnant with her first child; the lead detective, D.D. Warren, who is a recurring character of Gardner’s; and Flora, who is a survivor of a past crime turned police informant and victim-support worker.

The book opens with Evie arriving home to find her husband Conrad dead. She takes the gun from his lap and fires it, and seconds later is found by the police still holding the gun, which makes it hard for them to believe her statement that she didn’t kill Conrad. D.D. recognises Evie from one of her first cases as a police officer, when Evie was a teenager who had accidentally shot and killed her father (or had she?). To make matters even more complicated, when news of the murder is televised, Flora recognises Conrad as an associate of the man who kidnapped and serially raped her.

It’s an intriguing set-up, allowing for some exploration of themes including abuse, grief and family. The women are interesting and varied. D.D. is happily married, has a young son who she manages to spend time with while working full-time and is good at her job. (It’s telling that those characteristics seem rare to me in a fictional detective.) Flora has some triggers due to her past trauma, but in general she is pretty badass. Evie is fractious, having spent most of her life keeping everyone at arm’s length, but she had still managed to build a life that she was mostly happy with.

“I understood my father was a great man. I assumed, judging by the quality of our home and the size of my mother’s pearl necklace, that we led a life that others envied. Certainly, I spent my days in an elite boarding school where my teachers were suitably impressed by my own intelligence, while having to break the news to my father that I was no mathematical prodigy…But my father, his mind, his intellect – he was a mystery to me till the bitter end.”

It’s all fairly enjoyable, easy to read and not entirely predictable, while still following the general rules of the genre. On reflection, the plot doesn’t stand up to much interrogation, and there was some clunkiness in expositional dialogue. But I don’t mind those things so much. However, I had a very big problem with the ending.

*** Spoilers ahead ***

Obviously, with a crime novel the whole point is whodunnit, so I have deliberated on whether to write anything about this. Especially with a new title. But I found the outcome so offensive that I really think I need to explain myself. If, for some reason, you want to read this book without having the ending ruined, do not read on.

This novel has one gay character, a bit of a stereotype of the elegant, older gentleman who has never had a lasting relationship and most of whose friends and acquaintances don’t know his orientation. And guess what? He’s the murderer, for flimsy reasons that centre around his being rejected by his straight best friend. I’m not saying that you can never have a gay murderer, but this is effectively saying that he’s a murderer because of his sexual orientation. It is not just an overdone cliché, but after a long history of all queer characters in books and films being evil, or suspicious or coming to a bad end, I think you have to come up with a better reason for your one gay character to commit murder.

I will also add that in a book with several reasonably complex women and let’s say less-well-developed male characters, it’s disappointing that the murderer is one of the men and not a woman. At one point I thought that it was all leading up to Evie’s mother being the murderer, which would have been so much more interesting and satisfying.

If the point of reading crime fiction is to feel that a problem has been solved, that a wrong has been righted, this book did not achieve that aim.

*** End spoilers ***

This is Gardner’s 10th book starring D.D. and she has several more novels under her belt besides, so she’s obviously got fans. I am definitely not one.

Published 2019 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Source: Passed on to me by a friend who was sent multiple copies by the publisher for review.