Hank Phillippi Ryan: The Murder List

What makes a thriller good?  What makes one stand out from the pack of – let’s be honest – the many, many books at the moment about women in jeopardy who have lost their memories or are unreliable narrators or have terrible husbands?  Let’s start with the main character.  Lawyer in training Rachel North has none of those problems.  Her memory is intact and her husband seems like a doll in a Red Sox cap.  She seems reliable and balanced.  She’s just – in a situation.

Thrillers need to be plotted like clockwork, without the gears showing to the reader.  So someone as gifted as Hank Phillippi Ryan can introduce many characters onto her canvas, turn the wheel of the plot, and a previously introduced character will unexpectedly show up where you least expect it.  Gears at work here, but not on display.  Masterful.

Rachel is in law school, married to a defense attorney, and she’s been assigned as an intern to her husband’s prosecutorial enemy.  It’s making things a bit frosty at home.  She’s come to law school a bit late in the game, and as the story unfolds, we learn about her job as assistant to a state senator in Boston and her time served on a jury, where she actually met her husband.

There’s also a murder which happens in Rachel’s past, then circles back.  The many threads of Rachel’s life eventually knit together but as the skillful Ryan turns her narrative lens, you aren’t quite sure how they connect.  The other thing that makes a thriller great:  an ending – in my opinion about the last quarter of the book – that’s compelling, impossible to put down, and ties together the threads that have been introduced throughout the story.

Ryan achieves this in spades.  I was reading the book at work and was annoyed when lunch was over and had to set it aside.  The ending has a surprise twist I certainly didn’t see coming, and it will make the book stick with you.  I wanted to go back and re-read it almost instantly so I could see where Ryan had so cleverly laid her clues.

The other thing that made this book a standout was the legal background to the story.  Interestingly, there’s very little courtroom stuff, it’s all the back of the house details that go on during a trial and an arrest.  These details were beautifully rendered.  I also felt Ryan has relaxed as a writer, and her true “voice” emerges more and more with every novel. It’s a delight to see it happen.  This is a book by a writer at her peak.