Review: Nevada Barr, author of the Anna Pigeon mystery series, pens her first stand-alone thriller, 13½.
One night in 1971, 11-year-old Dylan Raines is convicted of murdering his mother, father, and baby sister, and severely injuring his older brother Richard. Convicted by a Minnesota court, and sentenced to juvenile detention until his 18th birthday, and the state penitentiary thereafter, he doesn't profess his innocence, but rather his inability to remember anything that happened that night. Thirty-six years later, Polly Farmer Deschamps, a divorced mother of two young girls, meets Marshall Marchand, an architect helping to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans. They are married but shortly afterward Polly notices Marsh seems troubled … and when she begins to explore his past, she concludes she may not know the man she married, and to fear for the safety of her children.
The best thrillers typically have unexpected twists, or something to surprise the reader along the way, but there is nothing unexpected or surprising in 13½. The author makes little effort to disguise the fact that the Marchand brothers in 2007 New Orleans are, in fact, the Raines brothers of Minnesota in the late 1960s, and that the murders of the Raines family members described early in the book are not quite what they seem. Nor is the identity of the mysterious Woman in Red all that mysterious. Even the title doesn't make a lot of sense: "13½" is a prison tattoo that signifies 12 jury members, 1 judge, half a chance; but there is no judge, jury, or trial here … nor is there a prison. Maybe the title has a more subtle meaning, but if so, it's not clear what it is or how it relates to the story.
The briskly paced and exceptionally well-written narrative overcome much of the predictability of 13½. The significant plot holes are a little harder to ignore. Elements of psychological suspense are introduced in a very convincing way, however; here's a passage that effectively conveys the confusion of one of the characters: "Leaning into the psychic wind, he pushed forward two more staggering steps. Outside the master bedroom the mental storm reached gale force. Holding onto the door frame, he tried to overcome the need to go in. Three times this evening he'd made the pilgrimage through the stairwell's nightmares to this room to see if it had reappeared. He didn't know whether this time would be a relief or further proof that he should get to know his wife's razor more intimately." But too little is subsequently developed or advanced in this regard, and given the outcome is known in advance, the reader is left somewhat dissatisfied in the end.
Acknowledgment: Jane Wesman Public Relations provided a copy of 13½ for this review.
Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
Minotaur Books (Hardcover), May 2016
ISBN-13: 9781250064691; ISBN-10: 1250064694
Location(s) referenced in 13½: Rochester, Minnesota, New Orleans, Louisiana
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13½ by Nevada Barr
Publisher: Vanguard Press
Publication Date: September 2009
List Price: $25.95
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Page Author: Lance Wright
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