Short Take: You know the high wire act where the guy rides a unicycle while juggling bowling pins that are on fire? Ania Ahlborn did that.
It was with great sadness that I heard of Ann Rule’s passing. Her books were my first dip into the true crime genre, and The Stranger Beside Me is still one of the only books ever to actually keep me up at night. So why am I writing this review instead of reviewing one of her works? Because the main character of Within These Walls is also a true crime writer, and Ania Ahlborn has created a fascinating study of the writer’s relationship with his work.
To non-writers like me, telling a great story is a kind of magic, and I’ve heard many fiction writers say that part of them lives in the worlds they create. So the logical conclusion becomes, what if the world you are writing about not only exists, but is terrifying and violent? Can you live within that, and still keep your “real life” neat and orderly? What if you feel like you have no alternative? How far would you immerse yourself in that world to tell a great story, to write a career-making book?
Lucas Graham’s life is hitting the skids. Once a best-selling true crime author, he’s watched his relationship with his wife go the way of his sales ranks: right into the toilet. He can see his twelve year old daughter starting to drift away as well, and when he gets a letter from a death row inmate, it looks like just the rope that could save him from drowning.
And in pure horror-fiction tradition, Mr. Graham pays no mind to the idea that rope can hang you just as easily.
The letter he receives is from Jeffrey Halcomb, an enigmatic Charles Manson wannabe. Thirty years ago, he formed his own little “family” consisting of neurotic rich girl Audra Snow and eight other people. They all lived in Audra’s house, and they all died there. Audra was murdered by Halcomb, and the rest of the family appeared to have committed suicide. Halcomb was sent to death row, and kept his silence for decades, never revealing why the atrocity happened, until he writes to Louis.
Louis of course jumps at the chance to revive his career and possibly his relationship with his daughter. He doesn’t think much of the catch, that they will have to move across the country to Pier Pointe, Washington, and live in the house where the deaths occurred for two months while he interviews Halcomb and writes his book.
But even when strange things start happening in the house, and more people involved in the case begin dying, Louis has to choose between his real life and his book.
This is another one of those books that’s hard to review, because I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s nearly impossible to say what was so cool about it without adding some detail. So I’ll start by saying, I thought for sure that it would be a kind of predictable thriller, a Silence of the Lambs knockoff in which the criminal genius toys with the mind of the earnest person just trying to do their job.
And it wasn’t really like that at all.
I considered that it might go the way of the typical haunted house book, in which everyone makes it out alive and OK with maybe some nightmares.
Don’t get me wrong: there was some cat and mouse with Halcomb, and some haunting, but there was a lot more. For one thing, Louis Graham is kind of an a-hole. Yeah, I said it. He’s self-absorbed and self-pitying, and that never looks good on anyone. He’s too weak to be an antihero. He seems to really want to fix his relationship with Virginia, but the siren song of his work never goes away. What’s great is, even when you want to slap the hairs out of his nose, you still understand his choices for the most part. He’s desperate, and that desperation is clouding his judgment badly.
We also get some really great characterization with Virginia, and especially with the tragic Audra Snow. Interspersed with the present-day chapters, we see the events leading up to her death through her eyes, and the chapter names of these sections create an eerie countdown to her murder.
But the biggest surprise of all is in how Ms. Ahlborn handled the character of Jeffrey Halcomb. I wanted so much more of this man, but we only get bits and pieces. It’s a daring move, and one that could have failed and tanked the whole book. But somehow, it works. I wanted more, yes, but at the same time, I felt like I had seen almost enough, and sometimes, that’s plenty.
That’s not to say that Within These Walls is flawless. The last few scenes before the epilogue felt a little messy and overcrowded, and pretty much every woman in this book is a victim or a villain.
But overall, this was a great surprise, and I did NOT see the end coming, which is my favorite kind of book.
The Nerd’s Rating: FOUR HAPPY NEURONS (and some incense. Crazy cults love their incense.)