Monday, October 17, 2016
Book Review: Undertow
Since the days of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, British writers have been known for fast-paced, well-plotted thrillers and mysteries. With Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on a Train in theaters (although the London location has moved to New York City), it’s not surprising that publishers are hopping aboard the Brit Lit express. To Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10, Clare Macintosh’s I Let You Go, and Gilly Macmillan’s What She Knew, add author Elizabeth Heathcote’s debut, Undertow.
Undertow reminded me a bit of The Girl on the Train; if Hawkins had decided to write her book from the point of view of Anna (Rachel’s ex-husband’s current wife) instead, it might have ended up something like this.
Carmen is the woman at the center of Undertow, although most of the action took place well before she hit the scene. She’s the second wife of Tom, who left his first wife Laura and their three children for his girlfriend Zena. But Zena drowned off the beach at Tom’s summer place in St. Jude, and later Tom married Carmen. In the grocery store in St. Jude one day, Carmen overhears gossip that Tom actually killed Zena. This rumor propels Carmen into an investigation: Did Tom actually kill his girlfriend? His answers don’t hold water, and when Carmen learns that Zena had suffered a head wound before drowning, she pulls out all the stops to find the truth.
Heathcote sets out a winding trail of bread crumbs for Carmen to follow, and Carmen gobbles them up steadily. Other than some minor details about Carmen’s private life, the character is steadfast to her goal, and seems a little one-dimensional as a result. There’s also an element of “don’t go into the basement!” as Carmen remains married to a man she suspects killed his last lover.
The competition in this genre is fierce, and Heathcote’s voice isn’t quite as engaging as the narratives offered by similar authors. Carmen seems younger than her age, and, more frustratingly, Heathcote twice stops the narrative at a critical juncture, only to jump ahead in the timeline. Both times this allowed her to avoid writing out important scenes.
Heathcote does a nice job setting up a few red herrings. But it would have been more effective had Carmen also considered that someone other than Tom might have killed Zena, had her death not been an accident. I finished the book mostly to find out whether my guess about the ending was correct. (It was. However, I also guessed the ending of The Girl on the Train. Your experience may vary.)
While Undertow doesn’t reach the level of other recent British thrillers, for readers who enjoy testing their smarts against the author’s, it’s a fun read.
Thanks to Quercus for the book in exchange for an honest review.