Whoever was responsible for sending out the promo copy of Alice Blanchard’s A Breath After Drowning (Titan Books) deserved kudos for creepy originality. My review copy of the psychological thriller came in a plastic bag also containing a vial with what looks to be blond hair inside it, plus a wrist band that could be used on a body in the morgue. Way to grab this reader’s attention!
Kate Wolfe, a young Boston psychiatrist specializing in working with adolescents, is the heroine of this neatly slow-burning suspenser. As a young girl, Kate’s sister Savannah was sadistically murdered, and the man with a suitably sinister sounding name (Henry Blackwood) found guilty of the deed is about to be executed for it. When a bi-polar teen client appears to have hung herself, Kate’s professional life is thrown off-kilter. Its further complicated when a new teen-aged client none-too-coincidentally turns out to be the daughter of the witness whose court testimony convicted Blackwood.
As the man’s execution approaches, Kate begins to wonder if Blackwood was the actual culprit. Prodded by a retired police detective named Palmer Dyson, who professes to have contradictory evidence about Savannah’s murder, Kate gets drawn into a satisfyingly complex investigation of what looks to be a series of serial killings, touching her family in more ways than her sister’s slaying. Forced to confront her own complex issues – a distant father, suicidal mother and her own feelings of survivor’s guilt – she uncovers a series of unsettling traumatic family secrets.
Blanchard’s book works less as a mystery novel (the big reveal of the actual killer’s identity proves a bit of a letdown) than as a finely wrought psychological thriller. She’s particularly strong in charting the mental ratiocination of her therapist heroine, and the ultimate resolution of her tale proves believably grim. (This is not a work where the protagonist effortlessly sloughs off everything happens to her.) In the end, Breath proves an engrossing late-night read, and, yes, that vial of blond hair does show up in the novel . . .