by Rana Asfour
The reason I picked 'All the Beautiful Lies' by Peter Swanson for the BookFabulous Summer Read 2018 was because it had been on several book lists for most anticipated thriller for 2018 (note to self: keep a record next time of those lists and their source to present to readers of this blog). I am going to assume that this book only made it on to those lists based on the author’s previous successful books - which is the most logical explanation I can come up with. I say this, because although I enjoyed the book, it wouldn’t necessarily be on the top of the list of my recommendations.
‘All the Beautiful Lies’ by Peter Swanson, his fourth novel, is a well-written book in terms of style and flow of the narration. There is never any doubt with regards the mastery of the writer. The story unfolds quite seamlessly and the transition from one chapter to the next is smooth with chapters alternating between ‘now’ and ‘then’ to tie in events that are happening in the present with others that have happened in the past. It was a well-chosen route, I thought, by the author to explain how the actions of the characters in the present were possibly spurred on by events that may or may not have happened to them in the past.
Harry, a college student on the brink of graduation, receives word that his father, 60-year-old Bill Ackerson, has died - the ruling alternating between a suicide and an accident. That is until Harry arrives at his hometown Kennewick, Maine and is informed by Kennewick Police Department’s Travis Dixon that the police are now looking in to a possible murder scenario. It’s not long before Alice, Harry's stepmother, offers up two suspects; Annie and Lou Callahan on the basis that Annie was presumably having an affair with Harry’s father and that Annie’s husband Lou must have carried out the murder in a fit of rage when he found out about the affair.
However, by this point in the story, a true crime reader will not be ruling anyone out as a suspect. Harry’s stepmother, 35-year-old Alice, (Just in the middle of his and his father’s age) seems to be lavishing attention on Harry that far exceeds those of a caring stepmother. Readers grow more suspicious as revelations of a very dubious and dark past come to light. And then there’s the appearance of a twenty-something-year-old girl at the funeral who Harry soon learns is a new resident of the town. She tells Harry she moved to town to recover from a failed relationship and to retire from city life in general. But, Harry increasingly suspects that she is also connected to his father in some way. Caught up in the middle of all of this, Harry doesn’t know who or what to believe!
As Harry spends more time in Kinnewick helping out at his father’s bookstore (Yes! Best part of the book was that Bill Ackerson owned not one but two bookstores), and conversing with the bookstore’s 80-year-old employee, and Bill’s late-in-life friend, John Richards, he finds out that he knows next to nothing about his father’s personal life adding to the confusion surrounding his death.
Now that I’ve mentioned the bookshop, I must say that for the first time, the character I loved most in the novel was the dead one! Bill Ackerman was a bookstore owner, a fanatic lover of books (particularly crime novels) and obsessed with making book lists – basically a dream character in my books. And, thinking about it later, it is only apt – and ironic - that the writer should make a lover of crime novels the subject of a murder mystery himself as even his son Harry points out at one point in the novel.
As I said the book has a lot going for it but also the reverse could be said as well. And I believe the problem lies with the characters. I found it very difficult to care or sympathize with any of them. And as there are quite a fair number of characters in this book, one would be correct to assume that they would have an array of different relationships with different characters that would appear along the book, but No! They all seemed to end up with each other or if not with each other, then coveting one another in some way, as if there were no other people on the face of the planet! Seriously!
The storyline also plays along very dark and disturbing themes – not a bad thing of course – but the way the writer dealt with these heavy topics seemed rushed, shallow and stereotyped. The novel contains scenes of child abuse and grooming, abuse of power in the position of guardian as well as alcohol and drug addiction. Thankfully none of the scenes are violent or descriptive in any way but when they happen they are disturbing nonetheless. I totally applaud the writer’s decision to refrain from unnecessary distasteful description.
However, once the characters’ backgrounds were revealed, they didn't seem plausible enough to warrant their motives later on. Even the revelations were mediocre. I have to admit I figured most of the plot out way too early in the novel. And that’s why despite some of the very good reviews about this book (as I said it is well written), I found the most shocking revelation of all was how unrealistic unsatisfying and contrived its ending was.