In Dennis Lehane’s creepy and suspenseful Shutter Island, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck arrive on Shutter Island to find a missing inmate from Ashecliffe Asylum. What seems like a routine investigation is swiftly put off the rails by the uneasy atmosphere at Ashecliffe, and all of the secrets the people in charge seem to be keeping. Teddy has his own demons to work though at the same time, having recently lost his wife.
I can’t believe I’m only getting to this novel now. I never saw the movie, either, so the ending remained unspoiled for me. I enjoyed the dark, film noir feel of this, with the tortured war veteran and his dark past, his solitary nature, his desire for revenge. He’s a great character, flawed yet remaining sympathetic.
The plotting of this novel is so intricate and so well-constructed. I can’t out-do the Kirkus reviewer on this one: it’s a “lollapalooza of a corkscrew thriller.” You start questioning your own sanity by midway through, and I mean that in the best possible way. The twist is revealed in one of the best scenes I’ve read lately, where the stakes are high for everyone involved and the emotion of it all seems very real.
The setting is fantastic, both gritty and Gothic, perfect for the story. Ashecliffe is depicted as a brutal relic from another century, and its maximum security isolation on an island is perfect.
Lots of diverse readalikes present themselves for this one, depending on what you enjoyed the most. Noir and crime fiction from the 1950’s might really appeal to you, if you liked that aspect of the story. The grittier the better. There’s also something very Gothic about the creepy atmosphere and sense of danger at the asylum. You might enjoy John Harwood’s The Asylum (I talked about it here). I also thought of The Boy Who Could See Demons while reading this, which you can read more about at this post.
If you want just a smidge more of the Nazi subplot, some aliens, and a ton of Sarah Paulsen, you might want to check out the second season of American Horror Story, which took place at an insane asylum in Massachusetts. Here, I can show this clip on a family-friendly blog (trust me, the entire season is just as nuts as this, but in different ways).
The Heavenly Table is set in 1917 in and around a small town in Ohio. One storyline concerns the Jewett brothers, the other a farmer named Ellsworth Fiddler. The Jewett boys live a poor, hardscrabble life with their crazy father, Pearl. Ellsworth lost his family savings in a swindle, and his son Eddie has taken to drinking and disappearing. As the book goes on, these storylines grow and then intersect.
Along the way there are several more subplots and characters whose stories converge with those of the Jewetts or Ellsworth (or both), adding to the layered and well-populated feel of the story.
The Heavenly Table is atmospheric and vivid. Engrossing, gritty and dark, and completely absorbing. There’s a certain raw quality to Pollock’s writing, one that can be gory and gruesome. There’s a lot of violence in this book, of many different kinds. And yet there’s also pathos and humor, and maybe even a kernel of goodness.
It’s got the feel of a Western, with all the outlaws and whores and soldiers and poor farmers. But it’s the more the modern, nuanced kind, without too many good guys or lone heroes. Interestingly, I noticed that one of the subject headings for this book is “Noir fiction.” So-called “rural noir,” with lots of bleakness and darkness, is pretty in right now. Sort of a descendant of Southern Gothic.
For readers of Daniel Woodrell, particularly Winter’s Bone. I’d also suggest Black River by S.M. Hulse if you want something with a similar Western tone but not quite as violent or bleak. Kings of the Earth or Finn by Jon Clinch might also be good. Also, do try Pollock’s other books, Knockemstiff and Devil All the Time.
Does it count if I learned about this book specifically because I was doing a search on NoveList in order to fulfill this challenge point? And does it still count if I didn’t so much learn about this book but was rather reminded of its existence because of this challenge?
Why am I asking when I’ve already decided that it does?
I knew of this one, of course. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes was published back in 2013, where it kept coming up on a lot of readalike lists and blogs, and was quite well-reviewed.
It’s a really great readalike for Tana French (Dublin Murder Squad) in terms of literary style. Great turns of phrase, beautiful descriptions (even in the goriest places), and a lyrical style really elevate this thriller.
As does the intriguingly original plot: in 1931, Harper Curtis finds a time-travel portal in a nondescript Chicago house. He also finds the names of women scrawled on the wall in an upstairs room–in his own handwriting. From there Harper feels compelled by destiny to find each of these women wherever they are in time, and murder them.
(Aside: My husband made a good point: does it really count as a serial killer if the murders are non-linear? Something to ponder.)
But Kirby, a young woman attacked in the early 1990’s, survives. And she sets out to find the killer, using her internship at a Chicago newspaper to hunt for clues.
Chicago is practically a character in this novel, so great is the sense of place in every time period. Though the snapshots are sometimes brief, Beukes still manages to create a perfect sense of time and location with three-dimensional characters. The feel of The Shining Girls is gritty and realistic, even with the sci-fi elements.
If you stay alert for the intricate plotting and shifting perspectives, you’ll be rewarded with an immersive, compelling, sometimes disturbing blend of thriller and crime.