Friday, September 7, 2007

A Great Big "Huh?"

I'm not really sure what Katie Estill was trying to do with Dahlia's Gone. It is a most unmysterious murder mystery, and seems as though it's trying to say something about connections and relationships without ever doing so.

Dahlia is an 18-year-old girl who is found murdered in her own bed during a late-afternoon storm in the Ozarks. The finder is a woman in her 30s or 40s, who I would dearly like to meet, named Sand Williams. Sand was born and raised in the small town, but grew up to travel the world as a photographer and have all kinds of wonderful adventures with her husband and fellow adventurer, Frank. Sand has been suckered into keeping an eye on Dahlia and her mentally retarded half-brother Timothy by her neighbor and mother of the household, Norah. Norah is much more traditional than Sand, to the point where she's rechristened Sand "Sandra Mason", disapproving of both Sand's unusual first name and her choice not to take her husband's last name. The crime is investigated by Deputy Patti (whose last name I can't remember, and I returned the book, sorry). Patti is the first and only woman on the police force, leaving her to deal with both all of the sex-related crimes (including everything from rape to drug-smuggling in a vagina) and sexist remarks right out of the 1950s.

Those are the key players, but Estill doesn't give them enough to do. From the very beginning, the murderer of Dahlia is pretty obvious. I won't name her killer, just in case anyone decides they want to read this book after all, but I will just say that I found her killer as creepy as any of the Children of the Corn or the Bad Seed herself. I'm not sure if Estill intended that or not, but for me, it further blurred the focus of the novel. The point of it seems to be the way the the murder draws together Sand and Norah, who dislike each other at the start. But what purpose does the character of Patti serve? Patti is a strong, intelligent, successful woman who has a failed marriage behind her and hungers for a baby and husband (sigh). The ending to her story feels so tacked-on, though, and her desire for a typical home life so stereotypical, as to render her character somewhat pointless.

Yet the book doesn't quite disappoint, for all of the bad stuff I've said about it. Estill's characters are great. Even Dahlia, who has just a cameo in her own tale (she's dead for about 75% of the book) feels vivid and real. They were all people I was into spending time with. I think it's hard to build suspense when the audience knows what will happen. One of the few novels I've read that does this successfully is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Perhaps the book would've been better if she'd taken a different tack with the murder, maybe even stated the murderer's identity from the beginning, and then let the tale unfold from there. I don't know. It was an ambitious book that didn't quite hit the mark, but I do have high hopes for Katie Estill.

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