Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz
Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz (St Martin’s Press, 2013) demonstrates the old adage that the more you struggle, the faster you sink. So off we go with a mystery thriller that meticulously follows the formula, namely that in the first act of the book, we’re introduced to all the relevant characters including the suspects, that in the middle act, there’s considerable confusion as to which of the suspects may be to blame, and that in the final act, we get an answer, then a twist. If possible, there must be broad, easy-to-understand motives on display, namely, revenge for wrongs caused and a burden of guilt among those who understand what was done.
So at the outset, we’re given a ringside seat as Daniel Brasher, a counsellor, works a room of criminals in San Francisco. They have all chosen to go through a course of group therapy in which they learn to confront their inner demons and become better people. If they resist, their probation is revoked and they go back to jail. Not surprisingly, the attendees are deeply ambivalent to the reality of the course. It’s the price they must pay for early release but they would rather not be made to think about the crimes they have committed, let alone decide they would like to reform. For the book to succeed, we must believe in each of the six individuals who’ve signed up for the latest course. More importantly, we must find Brasher’s approach to counselling credible. The exercise in character creation is not unsuccessful. I’m prepared to believe such people would enroll in a course. But I’m not inclined to believe in the somewhat provocative, not to say, aggressive approach adopted by Brasher. We’re expected to believe this motley crew would submit to this form of intellectual and emotional bullying, that it would crack open their shells of feigned indifference, and enable new human beings to emerge from the chrysalises which wrap them while they decide whether to become butterflies. Except, of course, one of them may be a murderer which complicates the relationship our hero has with the group.
The set-up is not without interest. For reasons that need not concern us, Brasher picks up a pile of mail from the boxes of his place of work. Among them, he finds a letter addressed in crabbed hand to an unknown individual. When he Googles the addressee, he discovers the man has been murdered. At this point, he calls the police and our highly experienced female detective arrives. The note is considered interesting but unilluminating. Because this is a thriller, no-one thinks to go through the rest of the bundle of mail. Hence it’s only later he thinks to check. Needless to say, he finds two more notes and this pitches him into the middle of a serial killer’s game. The killer is warning people to admit their guilt or go to their doom. Because this is a mystery thriller, there’s nothing obviously linking these nominated victims and, when they finally do track one down, she has no idea what she might have done to deserve such a death threat. It’s only towards the end of the book that the “crime” is identified and the scope of those at risk realised. At first, there’s no obvious link between any of Brasher’s clients and this “crime”. This is only revealed as we come into the final therapy session for the group.
So “Ask Me No Questions, and I’ll” Tell No Lies has quite an interesting point to make about the phenomenon of guilt and the layers of hypocrisy which people erect to insulate themselves from understanding the harm they do to others. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest a potentially significant socio-political subtext is in play. Unfortunately, the potential is rather dissipated by crudely drawn caricatures and reaches a somewhat strange conclusion which, I suppose, we’re to take as a form of ironic form of delayed justice. I think there is actually a good book in this set of plot ideas, but not as written. Yes, the mystery plot has potential, and there are chases and fights as is required in a thriller, but the whole is not as coherent or credible as it might have been.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.