The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan
As those of you who read these reviews will know, one of my pet peeves is the overuse of the coincidence. You can’t avoid them in any of the media. There are two or three tracks in the narrative that look completely separate until it turns out they are all different aspects of the same case. Or our protagonist just happens to be in the right place at the right time to meet the key witness who saw the villain doing something suspicious. And so on. In most cases, this is just too convenient to be even remotely credible unless the writer is using coincidence as a deliberate literary device, e.g. “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.” as said by Rick in Casablanca (1942) or the point of the plot is to generate humour as in a farce.
So when a writer sets off to put a plot together, there’s going to be an order of events required to get to the end with the right outcome. In the best books, this careful construction feels natural. There’s an organic sequence with one event leading to another. The problem comes when the ending too obviously dictates what has to happen, i.e. the writer is playing the role of capricious fate. The more contrived, the less credible. So, for example, Bram Stoker has Dracula arrive in Whitby which just happens to be where Mina Murray, Jonathan Harker’s fiancée, happens to be on holiday. Or in a large number of thrillers, two key characters may be separated by circumstances in a big city but, when one is required to save the other, they just happen to be within shouting distance of each other.
The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan (Forge, 2013) is the second book to feature journalist Jane Ryland and Detective Jake Brogan. She’s trying to rebuild her career in print after losing her job as a television reporter. Because of the ethical rules, neither side of the potential relationship is supposed to fraternise with the other. But fate naturally throws them together and, despite the rules, they find themselves increasingly of the opinion they ought to “do something about their mutual feelings”. The book therefore balances this romance against the investigations the “couple” are engaged in. Now comes the bad news. Almost every aspect of this plot is affected to a greater or lesser extent by coincidences. Jane is persuaded to help an ex-colleague look into a possible problem with an adoption agency. Her editor asks her to pick up a story involving the way in which the local Department of Family Services deals with children who are innocent victims of crime, e.g. where their parents are killed. And Jake picks up two cases. . . Yes you guessed it. He finds two young children at the scene of a homicide who will have to go through the foster care system, and is later allocated a suspicious death involving a member of staff at the adoption agency. It all goes steadily down hill from then on, with virtually every twist and turn in the plot depending on someone seeing something or finding something or being related to someone or not being related (hence the title of the book).
And do you know what? I really couldn’t care a fig! Yes, that’s right. This is a disgraceful exercise in how to abuse the coincidence but it’s written with such wit and style that I forgave the author. Our heroine may commit every cliché in the thriller canon (even being prepared to run into a burning building to rescue a source to demonstrate her status as hero) while Jake turns out to be wonderfully self-critical and continuously beats himself up for not doing better. Yet, when it comes to the crunch, he’s able to talk his way out of trouble or, if that fails, he can shoot with unerring accuracy. So The Wrong Girl turns out to be the exception that proves the rule. If you can write with the right level of panache, the reader’s enjoyment converts the dross into gold. And, as if it was necessary for me to tender evidence in support of my assessment, the book has been nominated for the Agatha for Best Contemporary Novel and the Left Coast Crime Award for Best Mystery.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.