Once Upon a Lie by Maggie Barbieri
We’re back to this problem of definitions. In this instance, the marketers have headlined the book on the front cover as “A Thriller”. So what do I understand by this term? It differs from a mystery in which the protagonist is confronted by a puzzle and spends the book solving it. Rather the wrongdoer is revealed, usually through some level of melodramatic activity, and is then pursued by the protagonist or pursues the protagonist with the intention of injury of death. This grounds the book in the experience of the protagonist who has to endure danger and fight for survival against the odds. If the author is successful, we empathise with the protagonist and so vicariously feel his or her fear as we approach the climactic ending. Well, no matter how you look at Once Upon a Lie by Maggie Barbieri (Minotaur Books, 2013), using the word “thriller” is a compete misdescription. In fact, this is almost a conventional novel about a woman struggling through a life of challenges. It becomes a crime-related story because her cousin has been murdered. From the little information we glean, he seems to have been found in his car in a fairly dark car park with a bullet in his head. This may suggest he was engaged in some extramarital sexual activity at the time of his death.
We meet members of the family at the wake and later when the ashes are thrown into the river. But the point of the story is the father of our “hero”. He was a police officer whose wife was killed in a hit-and-run. This left him with the burden of bringing up his daughter on his own. He did his duty by her, working extra shifts to generate the money to pay for good schooling and to provide all the basic necessities of life. This well-intentioned approach left his daughter lonely and somewhat vulnerable. In part, this may explain why she never really benefitted from all the material advantages she had. Except she married well and had two daughters of her own. This was giving her a “good life” until her lawyer husband’s eye strayed to a younger woman and ended the marriage. He’s still in her life and has a reasonably good relationship with the girls, but his absence changed her economic circumstances for the worse. She makes a living by running a bakery business — her cupcakes are famous — but it’s never going to make her rich.
All this would be bearable but for her father. His mental faculties are rapidly declining. He’s very forgetful and, although physically fit for a man of his age, cannot be trusted on his own. She’s done her best by finding residential accommodation for him but, of course, there’s a problem. On the night her cousin was shot, her father was missing from the home. No-one knows where he was nor what he was doing. As someone teetering on the edge of Alzheimer’s, he can’t remember or give any coherent account of where he was. Without an alibi, the local homicide detective has him down as a “person of interest”. As the book progresses, the detective becomes more active, questioning her father at the local police station and researching his background. With increasing desperation, our hero begins her own investigation. Where might he have gone? What might he have been doing? On the way, she encounters the detective who seems to be following the same leads. They both end up at the local train station where there are machines to issue tickets. There are no cameras to show he was there but, if he had taken the train, he had enough money to pay for a taxi at the other end and so get to the car park where the murder occurred. They agree it was physically possible for him to have committed the murder.
Spurred into action, our hero tries to devise a way to give her father an alibi. The problem is his lack of understanding. She can’t tell him what to say — he’s likely to blurt out that she’s been coaching him. This and other problems must be solved. In the midst of all this, her younger daughter is going through a rebellious phase with an unsuitable boyfriend and experimentation with soft drugs, and a customer at the cupcake business is obviously being abused by her husband. When our hero sees this woman’s daughter with a broken arm, she’s outraged and finds herself threatening the man with dire consequences if he injures either his wife or daughter again. The strain is really beginning to tell on her.
Putting all this together, Once Upon a Lie proves to be an engrossing read as we watch our hero struggle from one day to the next, dealing with each new crisis as it arises. Her ex-husband is less useful than he should be. Indeed, in some ways, he’s more a hindrance than a help and we wonder whether his new marriage can hope to survive. Her few friends do their best to help her but she’s essentially on her own. She pretends to be fierce. Her name does mean “warrior queen”. But if it were not for her immediate family, she would just give up. This makes the end touching and affecting, tinged with sadness but, perhaps, vestiges of hope still remaining.
For a review of another book by Maggie Barbieri, see Extra Credit.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.