When you read this latest psychological thriller by Sulari Gentill, The Woman in the Library, you may need to stop every so often and think, where am I? Its clever plot is like a set of nesting boxes, and you have to check which box you’re in. You may be familiar with Gentill’s ten historical novels featuring gentleman detective Rowland Sinclair, and, though this is not part of that series, it displays the same storytelling chops.
In this story, Australian author Hannah is writing a contemporary novel set in the United States. Her main character, Winifred (‘Freddie’) Kinkaid is also an author, working on a new book in the inspiring setting of the Boston Public Library. One day she finds herself at a table with three more young people and idly muses about them. They’d make great characters in her novel, she thinks. So, what you are reading are the chapters in Hannah’s novel, concerning Freddie and her new friends.
They’ve all four quietly checked each other out, but the ice is broken when a piercing scream shatters the library’s stillness. Oddly, the scream pulls them together. They speculate, start to chat, introduce themselves, and soon wander off for coffee as a group. The other woman, Marigold, heavily tattooed, has a rather obvious crush on their tablemate, Whit Metters, and the fourth is a handsome fellow named Cain McLeod. After that unusual bonding experience, the four spend much time together, especially when their curiosity is raised by the discovery of a murdered woman, presumably the screamer, under a table in the library meeting room.
Hannah (fictional, remember) is a best-selling author back in Australia, and as she’s writing about daily life in another country, she accepts the offer from a Boston-based fan to review her chapters and look for anachronisms in vocabulary—‘jumper’ instead of ‘sweater,’ ‘crisps’ instead of ‘potato chips,’ and the like—and location details. This man, Leo Johnson, is also an author, very down in the dumps about the publishing industry’s lack of interest in his book. Chapters of Hannah’s book are followed by a ‘Dear Hannah’ reaction from Leo.
At first, Leo’s advice is confined to minor factual matters and minor adjustments in descriptions. The fact that the fictional Freddie encounters these cultural quirks makes sense, as she’s Australian, too. She’s able to work on her book and live in Boston’s upscale Back Bay, thanks to a fellowship. A neighboring flat is occupied by another fellowship recipient, a character whom Hannah names Leo Johnson. (A third Leo is buried in the name McLeod. Significant?) Her correspondent is delighted at being recognized in this way, which may contribute to his growing intrusiveness. He makes corrections, fights for his suggestions, and sends photos he thinks Hannah might (should?) use for inspiration. His long-distance efforts to encroach on her creative territory made me increasingly uneasy! Creepy!
Meanwhile, in Hannah’s novel, the four friends learn unsettling revelations about Cain McLeod’s past. (Real) author Gentill plays the gradual erosion of trust nicely. Nor is the killing finished. McLeod seems to be the police’s top suspect.
The relationships among the friends are well developed, and, as Freddie gradually falls in love with McLeod, you hope she’s not getting in over her head. Not only is there the risk that he’s not whom he pretends to be, as Marigold warns her, there’s also the inconvenient fact that the police are watching his every move. Her proximity may put her on their radar too. Not until she and McLeod visit an Aussie bar does she recognize how hard she’s been trying to fit in.
This is a very readable book, with a strong sense of menace generated by Leo’s correspondence. I enjoyed it!