“You’re the type to bury secrets in dirt. But bodies always come back up.”
The blurbs and descriptions for The Broken Ones by Ren Richards clearly position it on the twisty, contorted, secret-filled, thriller-cum-mystery shelf of novels. While I’m not a huge fan of this genre, once a month or so I enjoy such a read, especially in between more serious or difficult reads.
The protagonist of The Broken Ones is Nell, a 29-year-old writer of true crime novels who has just sent her second book to her publisher. It is about a woman who killed her eight kids. Nell is preparing to do interviews and research for what promises to be her next project: Easter Hamblin, one half of a pair of formerly conjoined twins from Russia, who was convicted of murdering her sister, Autumn. Now she is claiming that her sister is very much alive.
No surprises or shocking twists yet, just pouring the foundation for the story.
In addition to interviewing Easter, Nell and her 33-year-old sister Lindsay are traveling to a women’s penitentiary to visit their mother Bonnie who shot their father (without killing him) a month before giving birth to Nell. In other words, Nell was born in prison. The two girls grew up in a series of foster homes in Missouri. During their interview, Easter Hamblin asks Nell whether she uses “is” or “was” when she refers to her daughter. At 14, Nell apparently had a baby who vanished as a preschooler. Although Nell is acquitted, the toddler’s rich grandparents condemn the verdict, fuelling her expulsion from town and forcing Nell to change her name. Nell is shocked that Easter has learned about her secret.
The plot has just received its first dose of corn starch. But I’m not trespassing onto spoiler territory yet because this information comes within the first 30 or 40 pages of a 400-page novel.
On the evening the sisters return from the prison, Nell looks down from the thirtieth floor of her posh apartment and sees a car in flames that resembles her sister’s vehicle. She rushes to the scene and witnesses a burned body being pulled from the car: a very dead mannequin that eerily resembles Lindsay. A day later another mannequin is found hanging from a tree in Lindsay’s backyard.
The addition of mannequins offers another tantalising tablespoon of plot thickener.
Speaking of spoilers, how the hell can they be avoided? Should they be avoided? Who gets to define when an action or a development in a thriller should be quarantined from a review? Thrillers can be weakened by inadvertently. Even such sterile generalizations as “I enjoyed the clever and unexpected ending” or “The farfetched foundation of the novel’s coincidences was disappointing”—however, denuded of spoiler content—might taint reading pleasure.
I have a solution. I can’t spoil what I haven’t read yet. I’m going to describe a few more crucial plot elements and hint at possible permutations and outcomes, the agendas of the main characters, and the red flags swirling around so many of them.
- Nell: The obvious “what happened to your daughter?” question. Reina is presented as a problem child, always crying, screaming. Something seems missing, though. Evil baby seems too pat. Nell’s hatred for her ex-brother-in-law also exceeds the currently available facts.
- Lindsay: Beautiful, stylish, more of a mother than an older sister to Nell. Doe she harbor bitter resentment toward her younger, weaker, sister whom she’s been protecting for decades? Her ex has psychopathic tendencies, but she seems reluctant to finger him during the police investigation of the mannequin torching incident. Is she the novel’s femme fatale? Just a red herring?
- Baby Reina’s father, Ethan, and his rich family: We don’t know much about them yet. Their backstory will be fruitful.
- Sebastian, Nell’s live-in boyfriend: Seems too good to be true: gorgeous, secure, and successful. Too willing to be helpful, too understanding. So open and honest that I don’t trust him. Is he interested in the reflected glory from her writing success? Does he want her money? Is he attracted to Lindsay?
The novel’s title centres on how damaged and broken its characters are: Nell lost her daughter; the potential damage to Nell’s reputation and career if the press learns about her past; damaged cars and burned mannequins; the broken bodies of the conjoined twins; Bonnie who damaged her ex-husband with a gunshot, spending her broken life in prison.
I haven’t finished this book yet. Its main themes are in place. Its scenario and characters appeal to me. I’m looking forward to finishing The Broken Ones.
Any Cop?: No spoilers, please.