I enjoy reading an exciting thriller to liven up a long plane ride or an afternoon by the pool, but even in my vacation reads, I don’t want to put up with lazy writing. There are three key things I ask for in a thriller: a tightly constructed plot, characters I can worry about, and a high level of suspense. Unfortunately, Andrew Gross’ new novel Eyes Wide Open doesn’t deliver on any of those.
The novel opens with a well-worn thriller cliche: a mysterious man follows a woman to her remote house, where she finds her dog murdered. Just then, the man steps through the doorway, holding a knife. Cut to a scene of a young man standing on a high rock in a bay off the California coast, while a voice exhorts him to jump to his death. These hooks are designed to pull us into the story proper, and they succeed, for a short time.
Upon learning of his nephew Evan’s suicide, Dr. Jay Erlich flies to California to console his brother and sister-in-law, who are both mentally unstable and wards of the state. Unsatisfied with the medical treatment his nephew received — he was hospitalized just before his suicide — Jay digs into the circumstances surrounding the death and begins to suspect that Evan was murdered. He enlists Detective Sherwood, an investigator for the coroner, to help with his convoluted investigation.
They uncover a connection to an infamous criminal, Russell Houvnanian. In the 60's, Russell was the charismatic leader of a commune who convinced several of his followers to savagely murder several people. If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence; Houvnanian is a thinly disguised Charles Manson. Perhaps Gross depends too much on his readers’ familiarity with the Manson murders, as he supplies only the barest details of the pivotal murders, and his villains remain two-dimensional caricatures of the most well-known members of the Manson family.