“Today, we are going to be playing a little game of Murder.”
Hanover Square Press | 2018
Opening Hook: Basically a classic Kesha song
Main Character: If Maury and Robert Stack had a baby, but that baby was drunk all the time
Plot Twisty-ness: Jigsaw would be proud
I went into this novel with every intention of loving it completely. I swear to Thor. But okay, obviously I didn’t completely get there. Story of my life. No one is shocked.
Guess Who started off as a five-star read until I passed the halfway mark and that’s when things fell off the chart. For the first half of the book, it is very much SAW meets Clue, just minus the horror element. But it does create a sinister, frantic pace and tone that definitely had me hooked. It’s a locked-room mystery that feels both extravagant and desperate at first, at that definitely worked for me in a totally non-sexual sexual way.
Morgan Sheppard is a TV star who has made a living doing a Maury meets Unsolved Mysteries-style show called Resident Detective. As a child, he solved the murder of his math teacher and created a very successful career riding (read: exploiting) that wave. Through his fame, he’s turned into an alcoholic, drug addict and womanizer. The only problem is, Sheppard has been full of shit for a very long time. And someone knows it. And someone hates him.
This villain, known as The Evil Man who wears a goofy fucking horse mask, and locks Sheppard and five other people in a hotel room with a dead body in the bathtub. Sheppard has 3 hours to find the killer – one of the people in the room – and prove what kind of detective he really is, or the hotel blows up.
So here’s the thing – I love locked-room mysteries. It takes your typical mystery, turns it into a microcosm and increases the mistrust and paranoia by 100%. You can either have something that feels like real life with a narrow focus. Or you can have something that is wild and kind of ridiculous that feels removed from real life. Both of these approaches up the “fun” element of a typical mystery and it’s why I like this sub-genre so much.
The problem with Guess Who is that it tries to be both.
Like I said at the top, the first half of the book was leading me to a soft five-star rating. It was wild and crazy and totally removed from real life. Although I could have done without that goddamn horse mask. Ridiculous does not need to equal silly.
The second half of the book tried too hard to ground the novel in reality. The flashback chapters to Morgan as a child and the murder of his math teacher felt quiet, dragging down the pace and the emotions that were amped up previously. Sometimes I was a little bored even. The identity of The Evil Man was clear after this, but still, we had to wait for Sheppard to figure it out and it started to feel like he wasn’t just a bad detective, but also kind of stupid. And really, that was just a fault of the plotting and not necessarily of the characterization.
Then you get to the part where all the fantastical elements of how The Evil Man pulled off what he pulled off are revealed. And this again, tried way too hard to make things seem plausible or logical, instead of playing up the ridiculous, flashy aspects. Explanations were offered up that were long and required so much dialogue that it started to feel like a silly cartoon villain dropping into a monologue where he explains his own genius to his captive prey.
Explaining for five paragraphs how you, as a villain, managed to make so much money so that you could afford your grandiose evil plan, takes the fun out of it. A simple, “The stocks are boring when you are so good at them,” would have been enough. Explaining how you managed to do what you did with the hotel room and how you got all these people there, doesn’t make it more impressive it makes it less believable. Again, ridiculous to silly.
I don’t need to know all the details because it dispels the magic that exists on its own in within that sinister mystery.
If less time had been given to explaining how this was pulled off, and more time spent on the emotional reasons why someone would be driven to mastermind such an event, I would have found the second half of the book much more satisfying. But as it was, the author tried so hard to ground this ridiculous, exaggerated plot – that would literally never happen in real life – into reality, that instead of keeping up that wild tone, it ended up taking itself too seriously.
Even still, it was a good read. Not great, even though it could have been, but good. The plot is complex, though the Evil Man is knowable a little earlier than I think the author might have intended. The characters don’t have much depth, but they are uniquely drawn and therefore you get a pretty good idea of who they are, just enough to extend the mystery of the killer for the reader.
I liked the main character of Morgan Sheppard. The contrast of the real him – a self-hating liar who is going through withdrawal from addiction in this dire situation – against the idea of who he is – some successful, smart TV star – added a new layer to the novel outside of the complex plot. And though he isn’t likable, there is something human about Sheppard that makes his quest for redemption engaging and hopeful.
Overall, this is rough around the edges, but for a first novel it’s a good effort and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up McGeorge’s next novel.
PS. To my American friends: VOTE ON TUESDAY FUCKERS.
The rules are simple.
But the game is not.
At eleven years old, Morgan Sheppard solved the murder of a teacher when everyone else believed it to be a suicide. The publicity surrounding the case laid the foundation for his reputation as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. He parlayed that fame into a gig as TV’s “resident detective,” solving the more typical tawdry daytime talk show mysteries like “Who is the father?” and “Is he cheating?”
Until, that is, Sheppard wakes up handcuffed to a bed in an unfamiliar hotel room. Around him, five strangers are slowly waking up, as well. Soon they discover a corpse in the bathtub and Sheppard is challenged to put his deductive skills to the test. One of the people in the room is the killer. He has three hours to solve the murder. If he doesn’t find the killer, they all will die.
An ingenious, page-turning debut, Chris McGeorge’s Guess Who matches the high-wire plotting of classic “locked room” mysteries into the unstoppable pacing of the modern-day thriller.