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Book Review: The Turnglass

TL;DR: Read it, but beware of the genre. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

First, a word about the format. I got this book for a book club I registered for, and I didn’t realise until I opened it that it was two books in one. It’s a tête-bêche, and I was geeking out over the format for a while. The term tête-bêche comes from French, meaning "head-to-tail", and refers to two books printed just so. When you finish reading one, you flip the book over and start from the "back cover" (which isn't a back cover at all but another front cover), going the other way. The format has been making a comeback every now and again, and quite a few books are printed that way. However, opening the book was the first time I ever heard of such a thing, and I’m very much enthralled with it.

OK, from now on, there be spoilers

Now, about the books. These are two related mystery novels. One is a gothic English mystery with echoes of The Woman in Black and The Yellow Wallpaper and, of course, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It is set in Ray and Mersea, actual places on the West Coast of England that are sometimes islands, depending on the tide. Simeon Lee is a doctor looking for funds for his cholera research. He attends to a remote relative who is sick. The uncle, Parson Hawes, who lives in Turnglass House on Ray, believes he was poisoned. Simeon investigates. The Parson turns out to be correct, but he also turns out to be the villain, so that’s fine.

The second book is written in an American hard-boil crime novel style. It takes place in California in 1939, although the actor-turned-detective, Ken Kourian, and his love interest, Coraline Tooke, travel to the Turnglass House on Ray. Coraline’s brother, Oliver Tooke, dies in suspicious circumstances, which prompts Ken to investigate the family’s past. Of course, the past contains many shenanigans. 

Would I have been so head-over-heels for this book if not for the unique structure? Probably not. The two stories are decent mysteries, but not something I would geek out over for weeks on end. I don’t know whether it’s because I have read the English side first, but I figured out the reveal on page 187, which is at 72%. Not my record, but much earlier than ideal, in my opinion. For comparison, I figured out the English reveal on page 226, barely eight pages before it finished (at 96.5%, which, to be fair, is a little late even for me). 

The English story does a decent job of discussing good and evil and how appearance and society dictate these distinctions. For instance, Florence is basically guilty of being a woman (at least before she poisons the Parson), and the Parson coerces her into imprisonment, tricking the authorities by being an “upstanding” man. In that sense, the book resonates with the tradition of Agatha Christie’s crime novels, questioning authority.  

The American story, however, misses the discussion of morality completely. The father kills his disabled son, Oliver and forces the younger, healthy son (Alexander) to take his place. Then he puts his wife in a mental health asylum–and tells everyone she killed herself–because she wouldn’t keep his secret. When Alexander, who has been living as Oliver, finds the truth, he kills him off as well, and when Ken and Coraline find out that the mother is alive and force his hand to bring her home, he kills her as well. This character is a prominent politician and a well-respected man, running as the Republican nominee for the US president. The author’s opinion of Trump is clear, but I thought it was a missed opportunity to discuss the ties to White Supremacy. 

The structure is a part of the book, and I credit the author for that. From a geek’s perspective, it’s very clever. The duality of the structure is reflected in Parson Hawes’s character, of course, as well as in Oliver and Alexander, the two Tooke brothers who fall victim to their father’s perverse sense of duty and morality. There are also parallels between the two stories, the two houses, and the families. But even here, I feel this could have been so much more. For instance, in both stories, the author touches on the past coming to haunt us and being unable to influence the future, but these are glimpses. It felt like the mysteries themselves could have been stronger if they were also looking into more aspects of duality, like past and present. Moreover, I would have liked some parallels between the characters. In my opinion, it was a missed opportunity not to have parallel traits between Simeon and Ken, for instance.

In summary, this is a clever and excellent book. It’s an easy read and a good-paced thriller, but beware that some horrific things are involved, as you would expect from this genre. 

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