Considering how widely popular the mystery genre is, it’s kind of remarkable just how difficult it seems to write a really good one. Creating a puzzle that presents just the right balance of fun and difficulty in its unraveling is the key – too far one way, the reader is bored; too far the other, they’re simply frustrated.
Chris Bohjalian has threaded that particular needle with his latest offering. “The Sleepwalker” (Doubleday, $26.95) presents just the sort of complexity for which the author has become well-known known; this mystery of a vanished woman and her daughter’s struggle to find out just what happened is driven by the sort of twisting narrative and relatable characters that make Bohjalian’s work so compellingly readable.
Lianna Ahlburg was just 21 back in the early days of the 2000s – back when her mother Annalee disappeared. One fall night, Annalee rose from her bed, walked out the door … and never returned. Lianna and the rest of her family – English professor father Warren, sports-crazy younger sister Paige – fear the worst; Annalee has a history of sleepwalking. Said history includes at least one near-miss when Lianna herself actually pulled a somnambulistic Annalee back from the precipice of a local bridge.
As the days pass with no sign of Annalee, Lianna becomes consumed with finding her mother. Dead or alive, Lianna needs to know what happened. With her father and sister each grieving in their own way, Lianna finds herself going it alone. Alone, that is, until she finds herself increasingly drawn to Gavin Rickert, a detective with the State Police whose devotion to the case seems above and beyond – at least until Lianna discovers that Gavin might have his own reasons for wanting to solve this particular mystery.
Down the rabbit hole she goes, peeling back layers of the mystery even as she slowly grows closer to Gavin. Yet it seems that for every answer she uncovers, there are even more questions that need to be answered. And as she learns, there’s far more nuance to the notion of parasomnia than she might ever have dreamed; it turns out that there was a lot about Annalee that Lianna never understood, and her journey could lead to some unexpectedly dark truths.
“The Sleepwalker” is a well-constructed work, with a narrative that manages to maintain a fast pace while still only gradually revealing the pieces of the puzzle. Too often, a story’s twists and turns feel forced and/or unearned, but Bohjalian’s plot moves with grace and elegance – each moment has a just-right connection to the circumstances from which it sprang. The picture is constantly moving toward clarity, even when things seem their cloudiest.
But even the most meticulously-constructed mystery means nothing with character engagement. This too is a Bohjalian strength that continues with Lianna. The author endows her with the sorts of details – she’s a party magician; she smokes a little too much pot – that allow for a richness that we don’t always see in a narrator. The hindsight inherent to the story – Lianna is relating the tale from years down the road – also contributes to the thoroughness of the narrative, as do the interspersed journal entries that offer a little more insight into the mind of the parasomniac.
Yes, there are occasional moments when things get perhaps a bit more complicated than is absolutely necessary, but that’s a symptom of the larger narrative – you might notice, but it doesn’t really detract from the overall experience. And let’s be real – would it surprise you to learn that the decisions made by a grieving 21-year-old turn out to be needlessly complicated?
“The Sleepwalker” is an engaging and eminently readable book. In the midst of its compelling mystery, Bohjalian introduces big questions about the nature of family, about heredity and sexuality and rationality. Its ever-quickening pace leads to fascinating reveals - and while you might see some of them coming, you won’t see them all. The mystery builds to a strong and satisfying crescendo.
And until that mystery is solved, rest assured that “The Sleepwalker” will keep you up at night.