Monday, August 19, 2019
The Murder List by Hank Phillippi Ryan: Reading Room Review
Sometimes an experience in life comes along that leaves you quite tongue-tied in describing its full effect. Those of us who consider reading one of our favorite experiences are fortunate to have that words-are-not-enough experience happen when we read an exceptional book. So, it is with praise that will inevitably fall short of describing its target that I am reviewing The Murder List by Hank Phillippi Ryan. It is as near a perfect tale as words can achieve. Hank, always brilliant with character development, pacing, suspense, and layering of a story, has created a twisted tale that grabs the reader into a delightful confusion of who and what to believe. And, for those of us who are obsessed with the thematic play of a book’s title throughout the book, the author continues to feed this passion.
The use of past and present, the now and the before encompassing six years of a cat-and-mouse game, in which not all players are even aware of being in the game, will keep readers guessing. Is justice a possibility where it’s hard to tell who the good guys are? The author cleverly makes that a hard question to answer by telling the story from the perspective of three different sides. Jack Kirkland is the renowned Boston defense attorney who is dedicated to giving the best defense possible to his clients. Rachel North is Jack’s younger wife who, at 36, is nearing the completion of law school at Harvard and plans to go into practice with her husband, a dream team fighting for justice for those unable to fight for themselves. It is their voices we hear most clearly in the first two parts of the book. The “before” look at Rachel’s job at the State Capitol, where she worked for the President of the Senate and a past time narrative about the trial that brought Rachel and Jack together fills out much of the background. The trial was a murder trial that pitted arch-rivals Jack Rafferty, for the defense and Martha Gardiner, prosecutor, against one another. Rachel was on the jury that found the defendant guilty.
By Part Three of the book, when prosecutor Martha Gardiner’s voice becomes a larger part of the narrative, the reader feels comfortably familiar with Jack and Rachel. Martha is more of an unknown quantity, and even after we begin to be privy to some of her thoughts, Ryan plays this character close to the vest. The other characters, those Hank Phillippi Ryan fascinating minor characters, are often like mysterious chess pieces being moved around by the major players, and it is this moving that keeps readers riveted to the pages and unable to put down the book.
The story begins at the time when Jack and Rachel have known each other and been married for six years. It is the summer between Rachel’s second and third year in law school, and she is required to do an internship during that time. Unfortunately, her internship is with Middlesex County Assistant District Attorney Martha Gardiner, someone Jack has battled in court many times and considers an archenemy. In fact, he describes her as evil and is adamant that Rachel not take the assignment. But, Rachel assures him that it will be a good opportunity to learn about the other side, especially about Martha’s tricks of the trade. Rachel has no idea just how crafty those tricks are. As uncomfortable as it might be, Rachel forges ahead. She’s eager to become Jack’s law partner and eligible for the “murder list,” a list of attorneys who are called on to represent those who cannot afford representation.
Rachel is surprised when Martha Gardiner singles her out as a promising intern, but Rachel wonders if Martha is keeping her close to get to Jack. Martha acts like she wants to work with Rachel, but then she hides things from her, too. When Martha decides to pursue a cold case, Rachel doesn’t know what to think. It’s the case of Rachel’s murdered co-worker back when Rachel was chief of staff for President of the State Senate, a case where Jack got the charges dismissed against the state’s, or Martha’s, main suspect. Knowing what that dismissal cost Martha, Rachel’s suspicions about Martha’s interest in having Jack’s wife work for her are quickly growing.
When the curtain rises on the last act of The Murder List, readers, you will be well and truly sitting with your jaws hanging wide open. Part Four is one of the best endings I’ve ever read in a mystery/crime book or any book, and the epilogue is cold stone chilling. The minor characters step into the light and take their places on that chess board that leads to checkmate. I was gobsmacked, but I was delighted to be.
I don’t often want to reread a book, mainly because there are so many other new books waiting for me, but what fun it would be to go back and read The Murder List after knowing the whole truth of the story. I actually did read a few passages again, and I had to smile at Hank Phillippi Ryan’s cleverness. Reading it from the perspective of the whole truth, the clues are there. But, don’t feel bad if you can’t see them the first time through. It’s like one of the characters says in the book about looking at a picture. You must look at it more than once because “later, the second time or the third time, you’d see something that hadn’t mattered before.”
Hank Phillippi Ryan has given readers the best legal thriller of the year. Or, is that a psychological thriller? It’s certainly one of the best books of the year, and I think it’s Hank’s best, too. I've placed it on all my personal favorite lists, including Favorite Books of All Time. It is so much wonderful murder and courtroom drama and mind games wrapped into a story that weaves a spectacular tapestry and drops not a stitch.
For full disclosure purposes, I will add that I received an advanced reader’s copy of The Murder List, and I have given my honest review of it.