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Tuesday, 17 May 2022

‘The Comfort of Monsters’ by Willa C Richards

Published by Point Blank,
13 January 2022.
ISBN: 978-0-86154-354-0 (PBO)

Every now and again a book comes along which bears the label crime fiction, but in fact simply defies classification. This is one. What’s more, if it hadn’t been made clear that it was a debut novel, I would never have guessed. It’s meticulously structured, beautifully, at time almost poetically, written, and above all it’s different.

On the surface it could be a straightforward cold case: a search for a murderer, or at least a body. But it’s soon evident that it’s far more than that, and that what actually happened decades ago isn’t the point at all. What the novel is really about is the effect this kind of crime has on the people left in its wake: how their lives are never the same again, and how the failure to find answers leaves them in a kind of limbo.

It’s set in Milwaukee, the location for the appalling crimes of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, known as the Milwaukee Monster. More significantly, the action flips between 1991, when those crimes were cutting a swathe through the community, and modern times, when the family of a young woman whose disappearance at much the same time was never explained are still trying against all odds to discover what happened.

The 1991 scenes are dark and atmospheric, littered with dysfunction and corruption. The vibrant, often wilful personality of Dee, the girl who goes missing and is never seen again, shines like a beacon in the lead-up to her disappearance; she seems to attract destructive relationships. Her sister Peg – short for Pegasus, Dee’s nickname for her – is more stable, but less self-confident, and the men in both their lives have issues of their own.

Cut to 2019, and all that has changed is that Dee is still missing. Neither the police’s half-hearted efforts nor whatever newspaper coverage the family could drum up have produced any information.  But the disappearance of one young woman had taken a back seat at a time when one young man after another was falling victim to a murderer who turned out to be a deeply disturbed cannibal and necrophile as well. Thirty years later what evidence might have been found has disappeared too. I soon realized looking for clues was beside the point, even when a psychic famous for getting results becomes involved; all that really matters is what it has done to the family.

The novel has a passing resemblance, at least in theme, to Dennis Lehane’s late 1990s tour de force, Mystic River. But Lehane was already an experienced writer by then. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Comfort of Monsters is that it’s the author first full-length work. And what a debut it is.

Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Willa C. Richards is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she was a Truman Capote Fellow. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, and she is the recipient of a PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize for Emerging Writers. The Comfort of Monsters is her debut novel.

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 in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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