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Wednesday 18 March 2015
‘And She Was’ by Alison Gaylin
Protagonists in crime fiction fall into three broad categories: police, accidental sleuth and private detective. Putting a new spin on a character in a familiar role is a challenge all crime writers face, and one way of rising to it is to give the character some kind of psychological quirk.
In And She Was, by American author Alison Gaylin, the quirk is down to neurology rather than psychology, which makes it all the more interesting. Brenna Spector is a private detective with a rare disorder known as hyperthymestic syndrome: a kind of eidetic memory, but with every sensory detail in place. The smallest reminder can take her back to an earlier event, which replays in her mind as if it happened moments ago, blanking out the present. She can’t forget, or edit her memories, and though they can come in useful in her work, they also ambush her at inconvenient moments.
The condition was triggered when she was a child, by the still unsolved abduction of her sister – so when a missing child becomes part of a case she is pursuing, she can’t let it go.
The case starts out as a straightforward missing person; eccentric Nelson Wentz hires her to look for his wife, who has disappeared. Then bodies begin to turn up, the missing wife turns out to have secrets, and Brenna finds she has links with the police detective in charge of the case. And that’s before we get into the politics of the upmarket suburb where it mostly takes place.
It’s soon a tangled web in the best tradition of the genre, and in the background lurks the ongoing mystery surrounding Brenna’s sister – a thread which will no doubt be explored further if (or more probably when) the book develops into a series.
Brenna’s memory condition is one thing which makes the book out of the ordinary – but Gaylin also has a neat line in oddball characters. Nelson, her client, is bland and uncommunicative almost to the point of autism, but she still succeeds in making him intriguing. At the other end of the scale, her cyber-genius assistant Trent is so in-your-face bizarre in a ‘yoof’ way that he remains in the mind long after the end of the story. There’s even a car which seems to have a personality of its own.
Brenna Spector is certainly one of a kind. Private detectives come and go, but I hope she’s here to stay for a long time.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
Alison Gaylin's debut book was nominated for an Edgar Award in the Best First Novel category. A graduate of Northwestern University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, Alison lives with her husband and daughter in upstate New York.
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.