BLACK WIDOW by Christopher Brookmyre
Grove Atlantic; 11/1/16
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: a smart, sophisticated web of lies
This fall, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Scotland for the annual Bloody Scotland crime fiction conference held in Stirling. One of the highlights of my trip was getting to meet and interview Christopher Brookmyre, an award-winning and internationally-bestselling Scottish crime author. You can catch my interview with Chris here—if you’re new to his work, this interview will be the perfect introduction to it. During our conversation, I was particularly intrigued by Chris’ description of his thriller BLACK WIDOW; I finally had the chance to read it, and I was blown away by the sophistication, precision, and complexity of this book. BLACK WIDOW is a far cry from your average psychological thriller. Its intelligence, masterful plotting, and twisty, shocking plot make it a cut above. It’s no surprise why this book was named Scottish Crime Book of the Year in 2016—there’s an undercurrent of intensity running throughout BLACK WIDOW that demands the reader’s attention from first page to last, and an assurance to Brookmyre’s writing that is an absolute pleasure to read. If you haven’t read Christopher Brookmyre yet, now’s the time.
From Scottish crime master Christopher Brookmyre, Black Widow tells the potent story of a woman who thought she was too late for love, the man who falls for her ambition, and the secret selves that are poised, at any moment, to end everything.
Diana Jager is clever, strong, and successful, a skilled surgeon and fierce campaigner via her blog about sexism in medicine. Yet it takes only hours for her life to crumble when her personal details are released on the internet as revenge for her writing. Then she meets Peter. He is kind, generous, and knows nothing about her past—the second chance she's been waiting for. Within six months, they are married. Within six more, Peter is dead in a road accident, a nightmare end to their fairy-tale romance. But Peter's sister Lucy doesn't believe in fairy tales, and tasks rogue reporter Jack Parlabane with discovering the dark truth behind the woman the media is calling the Black Widow.
Still on the mend from a turbulent divorce, Jack's investigation into matters of the heart takes him to hidden places no one should ever have to go.
One of my favorite things about the crime fiction genre is that it is so wide-ranging and elastic; it can include everything from light domestic suspense to dark, gritty serial killer thrillers. That being said, I’ve personally felt a certain amount of fatigue with recent lighter suspense novels that can sometimes feel, to me, like marketing grabs—books labeled “psychological thrillers” to appeal to readers of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and GONE GIRL without really delivering comparable content. There's absolutely nothing wrong with light suspense novels, I simply have felt frustrated by marketing campaigns which try to portray less-than-shocking thrillers as exactly that. Turns out, my reading list just needed a dose of Brookmyre's gritty, gripping writing to ease this fatigue.
Though it's about a year old now, BLACK WIDOW was a breath of fresh air to this reader: this is a psychological thriller that delves into the secrets of a marriage with the intelligence, masterful plotting, and psychological astuteness that define truly great crime fiction. On the surface, BLACK WIDOW is a standard domestic thriller: a story about a marriage gone horribly, horribly wrong, and an unveiling of the deadly secrets that existed between husband and wife. But there is so much more to this crime novel. BLACK WIDOW is a maze of deceit—it demands that the reader pay close attention as Brookmyre unravels the twisted web at its core. BLACK WIDOW is also a commentary on sexism in the workplace—a topic that is all too timely as I write this review, and one which Brookmyre navigates through his compelling main character, surgeon Diana Jager. BLACK WIDOW is complicated, complex, and impactful - in short, it's a standout.
Whenever I’m reading a truly fantastic crime novel, there’s a certain calm that comes over me. It’s the feeling of knowing that you’re in the hands of a genuinely gifted storyteller who knows exactly where he or she is leading you. Brookmyre writes with the kind of precision and richness that inspires this feeling for me. BLACK WIDOW is an assured thriller in every possible sense. This might not be a book that readers will binge-read, but that's no flaw of the novel. BLACK WIDOW is complex and layered, featuring alternate narrators and timelines—and, to make things even more complex, the chapter headings don't tell you right off the bat which narrator you're reading next. Despite all these moving parts, I felt completely at ease with this story’s layers—Brookmyre masterfully leads the reader down rabbit holes and through a maze to the truth at the core of this book. Don’t misunderstand: BLACK WIDOW is wholly engaging and moves at a pace that’s comparable to its psychological thriller peers, it’s simply not a book I found myself wanting to binge-read; I took my time with this read, savoring each page and letting myself get lost in its dark maze—and the payoff for this journey was absolutely worth it.
This is a book with a plot twist, but it’s not a book that hinges on a plot twist—a distinction that is crucial to me as a reader. Brookmyre delivers what I love most in a psychological thriller: a series of shocking revelations that I never saw coming, but which logically follow from clues dropped throughout the novel. There is substance beyond the plot twist here, and readers will find themselves fully immersed in the mindsets, backstories, and lives of this book's cast of compelling characters. BLACK WIDOW has red herrings, hidden identities, conspiracies, and more—readers work alongside journalist Jack Parlabane to piece together the truth at its core, but I for one was just as blindsided as Jack by this story’s gut-punch of a finale. Brookmyre’s masterful plotting allows him to deliver twists that are shocking without being overdone and surprising without being illogical. In Brookmyre’s capable hands, nothing is as it seems.
One final note: BLACK WIDOW is part of Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane series, but it can absolutely be read as a standalone—that’s how I read it, and I had no problem with it whatsoever. In fact, starting with BLACK WIDOW was recommended to me by Brookmyre himself, which gave me total confidence going into this read. I completely acknowledge that it is always preferable to start a series at the beginning, but in this case, I’m so glad I dove in with BLACK WIDOW.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review. All opinions my own.
Series: Jack Parlabane Thriller
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Grove Press; Reprint edition (November 21, 2017)
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