Thursday, January 26, 2017

PLAYING DEAD by Julia Heaberlin

I'm keeping my word about reading all of Julia Heaberlin's novels.  For Christmas of 2015, my son gave me her latest (as of the date of this post) novel, BLACK-EYED SUSANS.   I enjoyed it so much and admired the writing that I looked forward to reading her other novels.  However, as usual, life got busy.  Another Christmas came around in 2016, and I suggested to my son that he get me another Haeberlin novel.  He didn't disappoint.  PLAYING DEAD was her debut.  As expected, I loved it.

I will admit that I wish I were a few years younger when I read this, and a lot less busy, because too much time lapsed between me putting the book down and picking it up again, and I struggled to remember who was who and why each character was significant.  There were a few times when I had to backtrack in order for some of the content to make sense.  I appreciated not being hit over the head with reminders and reviews, but at my age, I probably could have used a few.  I'm still baffled over how someone with a broken arm can climb a turbine tower and use two hands to shoot a gun.  Perhaps it broke on the way down?  I felt like a paragraph was missing somewhere. 

Haeberlin does such a fine job of crafting her characters.  She understands the importance of small habits, like how an addiction to Dr. Pepper can really bring a character to life and create a sense of familiarity for the reader.  She also includes all the senses.  I enjoyed how this main character was supposedly incredibly beautiful and attractive, yet so engrossed in her adventure that she scraped up changes of clothing anywhere she could and trashed or burned whatever she'd been wearing.  She must have been a natural beauty, because she certainly wasn't the type to carefully apply make-up in the morning.  All she really cared about was changing her underwear every once in a while.

To say that the plot is a whirlwind of misinformation and suspicions would be accurate.  I often found myself wondering why the main character was letting so much go and not trying harder to get a little elaboration.  I had the sense that the character knew more than the author was allowing to appear on the page.  Tommie McCloud traveled great distances to uncover clues, but always seemed to walk away right before anything was clarified.  There were plenty of twists and turns.  I was guessing by the title that someone in the long list of dead people wasn't actually dead, but my guesses kept changing with each chapter.

The author's descriptions were poetic and seemingly effortless.  In retrospect, I wish I took a highlighter to the novel each time I came across a line that left me impressed, so that I could go back to those points and reassemble them into poem form.  Years ago, I dedicated every moment of my life to reading, writing, and thinking poetry.  In college, I had a part-time job typing reference notes into a database for a professor in the soils research laboratory.  Nothing could be less poetic than dirt.  Okay, we'll maybe a few things...

But I remember cutting a few lines that stood out as being poetic to me and pasting them into a Word Perfect document that I would print out at the end of the day and take home to arrange into a "found poem".  There are plenty of descriptions in Heaberlin's novels that are poems in themselves.  That's a rare talent to find among suspense novelists.  Even more interesting is that Heaberlin has a background in journalism.  I had been approached several times in my life to join journalism teams, and turned down every offer because back then, in my mind, journalism was too dry a form of writing more my taste.  (Just the facts, Ma'am.)  But the reality is that journalism today contains some of the best writing talent out there.

It was a pleasure to read PLAYING DEAD, and I look forward to reading the one book I haven't read yet -- LIE STILL.  From what I read on her author's site, Heaberlin has a work in progress as well.