Six friends attend their ten year college reunion, and are made to confront the truth behind a tragedy they’d all tried to leave behind. In college, a seventh friend, Heather, was murdered, and her boyfriend Jack was the prime suspect and immediately ostracized by his friends. But Jack was never convicted, and at the reunion, Heather’s younger brother Eric confronts the group, proclaims Jack’s innocence, and announces that the real murderer is among them.
In My Dreams I Hold A Knife is a good campus thriller. The story switches in time between the present-day reunion and the characters’ college years, and as the events leading up to Heather’s murder unfold, many secrets — and possible motives — are also revealed. I didn’t guess the murderer’s identity, nor did I guess their motivation, and the ending has the kind of ambiguous happiness that leaves the reader wondering if justice has been achieved.
I think I would have been a lot more captivated by this novel if I hadn’t read a similar campus thriller earlier this year that I thought was much stronger. The Girls Are All So Nice Here goes full throttle in giving us an anti-hero protagonist — Amb isn’t just unlikeable, at times she’s downright despicable, yet author Laurie Elizabeth Flynn manages to inject her with just enough humanity that you can’t help but feel for her a bit. As a result, that book is probably one of the most disquieting campus thrillers I’ve ever read. I called it bleak in my review and recommended allocating some time for self-care after reading, and that was because the story tore into my gut, and left me feeling disquiet throughout.
Jessica, the protagonist of In My Dreams, pales in comparison. She’s both unlikeable and sympathetic, but more in the mould of what you’d expect for this genre. She’s not as wealthy as her classmates, which makes her insecure and resentful, and she wants to fulfill her father’s dreams, which makes her ruthless in her ambition. She’s a complex, well-written character, but not one that will stick in your mind months after you finish reading the book. (Ironically, her main insecurity is that she’s often overlooked and forgotten, so maybe the author did her job too well?) It’s mostly that she’s exactly the type of protagonist that I expected, down to her having a quasi-love triangle with the golden boy and the bad boy. That’s all fine, but it’s also a bit of a disappointment after The Girls took me so much by surprise.
There was also something almost workmanlike with the reveals. The story is structured so that the set piece moment — where all the suspects are in a room with the detective figure (in this case, Eric) — happens about halfway through. Eric pretty much goes around the room, mentioning a clue, then pointing out that a particular suspect or the other is now revealed to have a motive. In classic mysteries, this set up works because it all happens within a few pages, so as the reader, you’re treated to a dazzling array of sleights of hand before the detective reveals who the killer actually is.
But this book spaces it out over several chapters, with interludes from the perspectives of each suspect. This format works in that it gives each suspect their time in the spotlight, and their opportunity to explain their actions. But the sleight of hand dazzle is lost, and by the third or so suspect, it’s already fairly obvious that the reveal is going to turn out to be a fairly minor one. That being said, the spacing out of reveals succeeds in showing us why each of the friends is somewhat complicit in the murder, even though not all of them are technically guilty of the crime.
I also like how the book delves into the lives of all these characters, and shows us what they’re dealing with, beyond the trauma of the actual murder. There’s an almost Rashomon-like feel to how each of the suspects gets to say their piece, and while the execution fell a bit flat for me, I like the broadness of perspective the story provides on the crime.
The ending, as I said, was unexpected, at least to me. I’m not sure how I feel about the way it ended, but in a way that this uncertainty is a positive. The author does give us a firm resolution and insight into all the secrets surrounding Heather’s murder, but I don’t know if I would say the ending is a happy one necessarily. I still feel that a character got away with murder, and I thought that was a nice, slightly uneasy, note to end on.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.