Laced with gothic vibes and haunting, otherworldly imagery Julia Bartz's debut novel The Writing Retreat is a treat to read and deserves to be high on the list of the best crime/mystery books published on February 2023. The Brooklyn-based American writer makes a strong entrance in the genre as her first novel ever has everything that an avid crime fiction would wish for: tense atmosphere, a twisty plot, unreliable characters, and a simple, yet not simplistic, prose that succeeds in conveying the eeriness and dread experienced by the protagonists during their period of isolation in a "cursed" estate with a dark history. As a novice author herself, Bartz opted for including several young, aspiring writers as the main characters and some of their thoughts are perhaps echoing those harbored by the creator of this hard-to-put-down story. Furthermore, Bartz utilizes a variety of trademark plot tropes of the genre in regards to her narrative process, plot development and characterization, thus finally delivering a fully fleshed mystery that you can devour in only two sittings, as the narrative flows smoothly and in a fast pace. There are several sub-plots merging with the main storyline as the story thrusts forward, leaving the reader guessing and speculating in respect to what truly lurks behind the strange occurrences taking place in the Blackbriar mansion. The Writing Retreat can be read as a classic locked room mystery, due to isolated setting, a fast track thriller, or even a horror novel as the author flirts with descriptions that will make your skin crawl.
The protagonist is Alex, a woman in her thirties who finds herself in a bad spot as she is tired by her job in the publishing industry while her personal life has been ripped to shreds since her fallout with her best friend for nearly a decade, Wren. Bartz introduces the reader to the narrator in such a manner that we instantly feel a kinship to her thoughts and emotions which are almost always in constant turmoil for reasons that we learn after the first part of the novel. Alex's unremarkable life will be turned upside down when a writing friend of hers, Ursula, calls her and announces that Alex has been handpicked by the renowned feminist author Roza Vallo to participate in a month-long writing retreat hosted in Vallo's mansion, Blackbriar. Exhilarated, Alex begins to believe that her luck has finally changed, but is shocked when she hears that Wren will also be part of the selected few that will attend the retreat. When the protagonist arrives at Blackbriar, she gets to know her fellow writing aspirants while dreading the moment when Wren shows up. The host of this retreat, Roza Vallo, is an eccentric, flamboyant persona who has inspired all the women in the group one way or the other and her character constitutes one of the novel's greatest enigmas. Roza's erratic behavior initially puzzles Alex and the other women, but they are all committed to their target, that is to write a full novel within a month's time. Which means that each one of them will have to write 3000 words per day and deliver it to Roza in order to check their progress. Whoever writes the best novel, according to Roza, will get a million dollar publishing contract as a reward. But as time goes by, bizarre things begin to happen, culminating in the disappearance of one of the contestants.
The authors builds the tension from the very first moment and intrigues the reader by concealing the reasons for Alex and Wren's painful break-up, a theme that plays a major part as fart as characterization is concerned. All the characters seem to hold back secrets, making it even more difficult for us to discern who is genuine and who is not. Roza's figure dominates the pages and her equivocal temperament makes for some easy, fun reading even if the mood remains spooky throughout the course of the story. Plus, Bartz chooses to employ a trope which has been used by many writers, though not always effectively, that of the "book-within-a-book", an element that can either bolster or ruin a crime novel. However, the debutant seems to be well aware of all the risks and Alex's prospective novel, titled "The Great Commission", delves deep into Blackbriar's gloomy past that includes the supernatural activity of a strange occult and seances aiming to contact the mystical world of the -dead- spirits. As the final part of the book commences, things go completely out of hand and be ready to suspend your disbelief as there are a few things that seem implausible, without however tainting the overall character of the text. Bartz's writing talent shines in the -many- graphic descriptions of sexual fantasies, leaving promises for a bright future. The Writing Retreat is an optimal choice for crime fiction aficionados who crave pure, unpretentious entertainment.