Strange but True

A superbly plotted mystery novel, let down only slightly by the writing.

As I was reading Strange but True, I kept coming back to the image of a braid.

When you’re braiding someone’s hair, you start with three strands. You twist two of them together at the same time as pulling the third one free, and you do this over and over, so one strand is always loose.

That’s what John Searles does with this book – he creates loose ends and then ties them up at the same time as creating more loose ends. His skilful plotting means there’s never a moment in the book when the reader isn’t dying to find out the answer to something. He drip-feeds information at just the right pace to keep us hooked.

The book’s initial mystery – one of many – is a whopper. Ronnie Chase tragically dies on the night of his high school prom. Five years later, his girlfriend, Melissa Moody, shows up at Ronnie’s family home, pregnant. She tells Ronnie’s mother, Charlene, and brother, Philip, that Ronnie is the baby’s father.

Slowly, we get to know more about Philip, Melissa and Charlene. We also meet Ronnie and Philip’s father, his new wife and Melissa’s family. All of these people have been severely affected by Ronnie’s death, and none of them knows how to move on. Instead of supporting one another, they have drifted apart, all finding their own ways of coping – until Melissa’s pregnancy forces them to come back together and confront their pain.

As well as plot, Searles has a talent for characterisation. We develop real empathy for all of these characters, no matter how nasty they can be to one another.

The writing itself is less impressive, in my opinion. It reminded me of YA fiction – simplistic and a little bit on the nose at times.

The weaknesses are particularly noticeable when we read a couple of poems that Philip has written. We’re meant to accept that they’re good poems, but … they aren’t.

And there are a lot of limp jokes in the book that, again, we’re supposed to accept as funny:

But he keeps right on blathering about Chaz. “I mean, what the hell kind of name is that anyway? His parents might as well have called him WASP idiot.”

Melissa lets out a laugh, despite herself.

Anyway, if you can overlook the slightly cloying writing – which isn’t that hard to do – Strange but True delivers, as both a mystery novel and a meditation on grief and closure.