It is sad to see experienced writers trying their luck with genres that have been long ago satiated with hackneyed tropes and identical plotting due to the mass publication of mediocre novels throughout the last decade. Christopher Brookmyre, one of the leading representatives of the Scottish Tartan Noir tradition and author of the enticing Jack Parlabane series, is a seasoned crime writer whose books are known to arouse both the readers' emotional and intellectual side with their strong narratives, thoroughly researched storylines, and credible characterization. In The Cliff House, Brookmyre's upcoming thriller due to be published in July 2022, the author attempts to create a blend of closed-room mystery and psychological thriller, featuring solely women characters and exploring the burden of secrets that become the main theme of the novel as their effect regarding the relationships between the protagonists is the primary narrative vehicle that thrusts the story forward. Unfortunately, the final result is a lukewarm thriller lacking even the slightest trace of suspense and strongly reminiscent of several similar works by authors who dominate the aforementioned genres such as Ruth Ware, Shari Lapena, and Lucy Foley.
It is not so much that I resent the novels written by these authors, but the truth is that it is tiresome to read mysteries, supposed to be exciting and drive the reader to a state of thrilling expectancy in order to see what's coming next, repeating the same storyline and placing their action in kindred settings, thus losing any capacity to surprise. It is essential for a decent closed-room mystery to have a strong sense of place and an inventive plotline destined to keep the reader in tenterhooks, guessing and speculating as to who is the villain and what will be his next move. Sadly, the majority of the authors who thrive in the genre exhaust their stories with twist after twist that purportedly render their novels original and unpredictable while in fact their obsession with constantly upending the narrative results in a farcical reiteration that leaves the reader cold and with a strong sense of deja vu. The pioneers of the genre were prudent enough to furnish their novels with clever plots that were not based on the element of surprise and their primary aim was to entertain rather than bewilder the readers with their ingenuity.
In The Cliff House, seven women travel to the exclusive resort of Clachan Geal, set in an isolated island in the north of Scotland, for a hen weekend though things take an unexpected turn when a brutal murder takes place in the opulent mansion that entertains them and soon after one of them gets abducted by a mysterious individual calling himself "The Reaper". Jen, Helena, Michelle, Samira, Beattie, Lauren, and Kennedy are a divergent group of women whose relationships are fraught with antagonism and bitterness due to past events that mark their personal histories. The secrets that have remained buried for several years will be forced out in the open as The Reaper informs them that one of them is not who she claims to be, thus injecting the poison of suspicion which leads to their questioning each other. In the course of one evening, the protagonists will unearth the most disturbing of past misdeeds of their peers and they will search for a way to make amends in order to save Samira who is the one that gets kidnapped. Who is the person that the Reaper indicates as an impostor? And will the women win the race against time and find the person responsible for their dire predicament?
Brookmyre tells his story through the eyes of each one of the characters and there is not a single one left out. The gradually accelerating pacing of the narration is further accentuated by the heavy use of dialogue which dominates the novel. The isolated setting remains an untapped background and its lost potential is one of the novel's cardinal sins. What could become a sinister, all-consuming backdrop is reduced to a locale to which the author devotes some sparse descriptions, failing to realize its significance for the mood and atmosphere of the text. Furthermore, the perpetual disclosure of secrets by the characters is the sole source of dramatic development, leading to a lopsided outcome and unwillingly highlighting the rest of the novel's deficiencies. The characters are also undeveloped, diminished to mere machines of confession and defined by their past transgressions rather than their actions as agents of the story in hand. We are supposed to empathize with them and excuse some of their misdemeanors by means of the author offering a great deal of exposition regarding the reasoning of their behavior. Nevertheless, I thought that the overall characterization was rather scrappy and I wasn't moved by any of the personal sub-stories.
To conclude, The Cliff House is not a book that has anything new to offer and certainly not the ideal start for the readers who are not familiar with Brookmyre's corpus. If you want to for an opinion concerning his writing skills, you should go back to the first installments of the Jack Parlabane novels. This upcoming aspiring amalgam of crime fiction's sub-genres doesn't succeed in its mission to entertain and thrill as it features all the cliched tropes that we've encountered in numerous other works by authors who have gained enormous, and frankly undeserving, reputation simply by copying the narrative form of the classical cozy mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s, and adding some splashes of modern thriller in the mix. It would be better to revisit the works by the godfathers of the genre such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and John Dickson Carr. I only read this book because of my admiration for Brookmyre as a crime writer, but my worst fears that sprung from reading the synopsis became a reality as I was reading this one. If you are into these kind of crime novels, you may find some redeeming qualities in The Cliff House, even though I sincerely struggled to find one. I want to thank Netgalley and the publisher for providing a free ARC of this title in exchange of an honest review.