RHC 2018: Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author.

Long Black Veil is probably technically more of a thriller than a murder mystery, and it’s a fast, fun read (aside from a few gripes). I’m not sure if it counts as a mystery if you find out who the killer is at the 50% mark, but it’s already October, so I’m counting it.

**Some spoilers ahead, though they do happen fairly early on.**

I’ll start with what I liked. The protagonist is Judith, who was named Quentin in the 1980s timeline in which Quentin and half her liberal arts school (hyperbole) break into an abandoned prison. The escapade ends with their recently married friend Wailer missing and presumed dead. After the prison incident, Quentin pushes her car into the ocean, essentially and successfully faking her own death so that she can transition and live publicly as Judith.

The present timeline concerns Judith, now mostly happily married to a firefighting septic tank driver who plays classic rock with a bunch of goofy old friends near a lake in Maine. And this stuff I loved. Her relationship with her husband and  subplots involving her son Falcon, her husband’s bandmate Cassie, and Judith’s struggle with whether or not to disclose her past were wonderful. Even though she effectively murdered her former public self, the years she spent living as a man are still a part of who she is, and it’s not easy or without painful ramifications, even without a murder in the middle of it.

Judith also has the perspective of an older transgender woman, whose transition happened well before transgender visibility made it into most cisgender American brains. Judith’s son is friends with a fourteen-year-old transgender boy who was able to live as himself from an early age with parental, medical, and social support (or at least the beginnings of social support – my understanding is that a lot has been accomplished there but a LOT of work remains). Judith’s identity isn’t exotic or played for shock value or tragedy porn – she’s a very relatable human being who’s been lots of things to lots of people, like everyone else who’s taken a certain number of trips around the sun.

The conclusion of the book gets really explicit about the collision of past and present selves, and it’s pretty powerful. Forgiveness and compassion are very prominent themes here, and Boylan is really smart about how she presents her protagonist (example: Quentin and other POV characters are all in limited third, but Judith is written in first). Good stuff.

Other major pluses include fantastically, luridly gothic settings – a crumbling mansion complete with pipe organ called the Bagatelle and cat-infested and terrifying abandoned prison! I mean, this is fun, right?

So, here’s the main reason I got a bit frustrated. There. Are. So. Many. Characters. The prison scenes not only involve six close friends, but also a little brother and an inexplicably present elderly German prof. I know that I sound a little dense for complaining about having to keep up with eight named characters right off the bat, but I had to read the first few chapters a couple of times to sort everyone out.

Worse, of the six, I only connected with three – Judith, Casey (the affable recent groom of the victim), and Wailer (the pink-haired, foul-mouthed, big-hearted murder victim). The other three really blurred together for me.

That’s also not all. There’s a retired cop obsessed with the case, the anthropology student who discovers Wailer’s body, a sinister veterinarian, and more. All POV characters. The book is 300 pages long. There is a lot going on.

I struggled a little with the disconnect between Judith’s family story and the murder stuff. It felt like the plots didn’t gel together quite as much as I would have liked them to. But in a way it makes thematic sense for one half of the book (the Quentin story) to be pure gothic melodrama and the other (Judith) to be clear-eyed, well-lit, deeply felt interpersonal realism. I won’t spoil the ending by laying out my entire theory there, but I think it’s supportable, though I do think some of the mechanics of the last act were a bit too visible.

Overall, this was one of those books that I genuinely enjoyed reading but felt a little unsatisfied with when it was over. But it is entertaining and generous in spirit. It’s not something I’d push into someone’s hands, but I wouldn’t talk someone out of reading it either.

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