At a crime writing convention I went to last year, there was a good deal of discussion on one panel about why it is that the victims in crime novels are almost always women. Needless to say, it was a heated debate, and a good many reasons were offered. Among these were the fact that it’s easier to elicit an emotional reaction when a female is involved–particularly when that reaction needs to be elicited in the opening pages before the story begins and main characters are introduced. But there’s a good deal more to it than that, and although I’m not going to get into a messy discussion about raunch, sadism and misogyny, well, there’s a reason that I don’t typically read crime novels. (I should also note that I prevaricated over which cover of this book to use in my review. I eventually opted for the cover from the version I read, although frankly I find it quite appalling.)
Before She Dies opens with the crime novel trope of a young woman being murdered for her “sins” (in this case, apparently for being a witch), and it’s an extended, graphic scene in which the victim is paralysed, overpowered, sexually brutalised, and then tortured before being killed. Following this, her body is “marked” and further debased. Throughout, the killer is described as being sexually aroused in his fanaticism and desire for power and dominance.
Needless to say, it was with trepidation that I continued reading.
Now, I have no issue with reading whodunnits and with reading about bodies and the psyche of a murderer. But the use of sexual and physical violence against women for titillation is something that I really struggle with as a reader, and I honestly cannot fathom what it is about this sort of visceral, sadistic writing that appeals to audiences. I resent the fact that I’m supposed to be entertained by these sorts of scenarios, and that we’re apparently so desensitised to rape and murder that it has to be continually escalated to achieve the desired effect from the audience.
And there are numerous such scenes between murderer and victims. Perhaps what’s worst is that all but the very last of the victims plays no other role in the narrative other than to be horribly tortured and killed. These women are nothing more than narrative playthings: they’re interchangeable, faceless and utterly disposable, and it unnerves me that this seems to be an unquestioned method of progressing the plot.
In between these scenes, however, we’ve given somewhat of a reprieve, with the bulk of the book following Charlotte Wellington, an upmarket attorney with a base carnie past she’s spent her entire professional life attempting to forget. Charlotte is your standard career-focused, emotionally crippled heroine, and her carefully created facade faces attacks from two fronts: on the romantic side of things, and also from the past that is destined to rear its ugly head now that the carnival is back in town. And with the carnival comes an array of secrets that may well lead not just to Charlotte’s professional downfall, but perhaps her death as well.
Although there’s nothing especially outstanding about the premise, Charlotte’s a likeable enough character, and her love interest Daniel is saved from everyman status by his entertaining Russian family–this alone helps to kick things up a notch or two. But there’s just such a sense of inexorability about the whole thing: everything progresses in the way one would expect, and it all feels like a bit of a chore (particularly given the painfully stilted dialogue. I do appreciate a good contraction or two in dialogue).
There’s also a sense of guilt being forced upon certain of the characters by the author in order to keep the reader guessing about the murderer’s true identity. It’s an unsuccessful approach, particularly given that the murderer is only ever described as “he” until the big reveal (a lazy approach, I can’t help but feel), and the other suspect is called by name throughout. The eventual solving of the mystery is also heavily reliant on happenstance and coincidence, and I found it difficult to believe the supposed, and retrospectively announced, relationship between two of the characters that was apparently the catalyst for all this torturing and killing.
The carnival element of this one lends an interesting perspective, and Charlotte and Daniel are sympathetic enough as main characters, but I have to admit that this one wasn’t to my tastes. Hardened crime lovers may feel differently, however.
With thanks to JOAN SCHULHAFER PUBLISHING & MEDIA CONSULTING for the review copy
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