Sulari Gentill adds an intriguing wrinkle to the mystery genre with “The Woman in the Library,” which sees Winifred “Freddie” Kincaid arriving in Boston from Australia as the recipient of a prestigious writers’ fellowship. While contemplating her manuscript in the Boston Public Library, a woman’s scream pierces the stillness, which becomes the central conceit of her novel: that of a group of strangers united by a piercing cry.
As Freddie’s story unfolds — her inadvertent quest to uncover the truth about what happened to that woman in the library, and how it connects to her newfound friends — Gentill splices each chapter with a letter written to bestselling Australian author Hannah Tigone by a zealously loyal reader named Leo Johnson, whose devotion degenerates into a terrifying fervour. It turns out Freddie’s tale is actually the first draft of Hannah’s next book — and we get to witness Leo’s dark influence on the text.
I’m a meat-and-potatoes kind of crime reader. I gravitate towards the police procedural because I enjoy the simplicity of the detective solving a crime. I often loathe it when writers try to mess with the tried-and-trusted ingredients of a mystery; the result can be overly-complicated and convoluted stories. There are exceptions, of course; recent examples include Benjamin Stevenson’s “Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone” and Stuart Turton’s “The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.” Gentill’s “The Woman in the Library” ranks alongside these. Despite its metatextuality, the architecture of her tale is devilishly simple; and she is brilliant at creating deep and complex characterisations in only a few pages, which makes her latest a taut yet elaborate must-read.