There are a lot of things that can make for a good book. Some books feature thought-provoking ideas. Others offer up compelling characters. Still others feature mouth-watering prose or sophisticated stories. Sometimes, you’ll find one that manages to meet more than one of these criteria. And occasionally, you’ll open a book that checks each and every one of those boxes.
A book like Jennifer Finney Boylan’s “Long Black Veil” (Crown, $25).
This literary thriller bounces back and forth in time, telling the tale of a group of college friends who encounter a tragedy so impactful that it completely and utterly alters the live that they lead in its aftermath. And when the mysterious circumstances of that tragedy are brought out of the shadows decades later, they’re left to confront truths about each other – and about themselves – that they had long since believed to be buried.
In 1980, six college friends sneak into the long-abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. These twentysomethings are a tight-knit group – in fact, two of their number had married one another just the day previous – and are looking for a spooky thrill with which to bring their summer to a close. It’s all in good fun … right up until they find themselves locked inside.
And they aren’t alone.
They are trapped in the darkness, separated from one another and scared of what might be lurking in the shadows. Before they can make their escape, one of their own simply … disappears. Those that remain are forever changed, irreparably shattered by the nightmarish ordeal and the inexplicable loss of a dear friend.
In the present day, unexpected new evidence arises that shines a light on this decades-old cold case. This leaves one of the group – noted chef Jon Casey – accused of an unspeakable crime. Yet of all of them – painter-turned-professor Rachel, special needs music teacher Maisie, hotshot lawyer Tripper – only one can bring forth the truth of Jon’s innocence.
But travel writer Judith has secrets of her own – secrets that must be revealed in order to save her friend, but whose revelation could possibly destroy the idyllic small-town Maine life she has sacrificed so much to build. Will she risk her family – her husband and son – to save a friend that she lost long ago?
What we have in “Long Black Veil” is a perfect storm. Each of the pieces on its own would have made for a perfectly enjoyable reading experience. The twisting plot alone would have made for a delightful little potboiler of a thriller. The people that populate it would make for a compelling character study regardless of genre. The ideas about how our pasts impact our presents and the cleverly-crafted prose would be at home in any well-regarded work of literary fiction.
Instead, we get it all. Boylan’s gifts are all on full display, much to our benefit. Relationships are dynamic and rich; the portrayal of Judith’s journey is particularly powerful for a multitude of reasons. The narrative is laden with twists and a kinetic pacing. The words are funny and poignant and borderline addictive. And there’s a thoughtfulness throughout – particularly with the treatment of Judith – that lingers in a most effective manner.
As you’ve probably worked out, I’m a fan. But perhaps the best endorsement I can give is this: I read the final 270 or so pages of this book in a single sitting.
“Long Black Veil” is a thoughtful thriller, one concerned as much with character as it is with plot. It is smart and complex, bringing its cast of characters to vivid life while carving out a nervy mystery and addressing the complicated calculus that comes with the human condition. Boylan’s latest is fast-paced and concise and exquisitely-written – a beautiful and captivating stampede.