Book Review: The Suicide House by Charlie Donlea
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Book 2 of Rory Moore/Lane Philips
Publisher: Kensington Publishing (July 28, 2020)
Length: 368 pages
I’m a sucker for forensics. So when I found out about Charlie Donlea’s The Suicide House, a mystery thriller featuring a crime solving forensic reconstructionist and psychologist duo, I knew I had to check it out. No worries that this is actually the second book in a series; I jumped on board and was pleased to find it can be enjoyed as a standalone.
Situated in the lush picturesque forests of Indiana, Westmont Preparatory High School is an elite institution that demands excellence from its students. However, the school’s impeccable reputation has been recently marred by the grisly murder of two of its students. The murderer, a teacher who tried to throw himself in front of a train afterward, was ultimately charged and convicted after the failed suicide attempt left him in a vegetative state. But now, a year later, Westmont Prep is making headlines once more with a disturbing string of cases involving students suddenly and inexplicably killing themselves. Even more unnerving, all those involved were witnesses from the night of the murders, and they all ended their lives by throwing themselves in front of a train.
The story has since been seized upon by true crime podcasts and bloggers, especially when one of them, Ryder Hillier, unwittingly captures one of the suicides on video. However, it is her rival Mark Carter who ends up stealing the story, sending his popularity soaring, while she is slapped with a lawsuit. But the media coverage has also caught the attention of forensic reconstructionist Rory Moore, who has a fascination with unexplained deaths. When her boyfriend, former FBI psychologist Lane Philips is called to Indiana to investigate the Westmont Prep suicides, she decides to show up and surprise him—only to find him and the podcast host Mark Carter trapped inside a burning home. With Lane put out of commission by his recovery from the fire, Rory all but takes over the case, uncovering clues and other details which might shine some light on the night of the murders and subsequent suicides.
Meanwhile, we also have Gwen, one of the remaining witnesses left alive after all her other friends have killed themselves. She and five other students were together when two of their number were murdered, and the gruesome memories from that night still haunt her…especially when it appears she may know more than she lets on. Hidden behind the high expectations and rigorous curriculum at Westmont Prep is a dangerous and toxic culture, one that involves hazing, a secret late-night hangout in the woods, and a sinister game known as the Man in the Mirror.
As someone new to the series, all I knew before heading into The Suicide House was that Rory Moore and Lane Philips were supposed to be the protagonists—their names are in the series title, after all. Therefore, I was a little surprised to find they did not feature as prominently as I expected. The story was filled with so many character POVs that the two of them ended up sharing the page time equally with others or were mostly relegated to the background. In some ways, this felt more like Ryder or Gwen’s story, with Rory playing the role of piecing the mystery together while Lane cheers from the sidelines. On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with this setup, other than the initial confusion of keeping track of so many moving parts. Because on top of the all the character perspectives, the narrative also plays out through multiple timelines and it’s not always clear when we are, or even who we’re reading about, because those facts are deliberately obfuscated by the author in order to preserve the mystery.
I also appreciated the touch of occult spookiness. As if the idea of a bunch of kids all drawn back to the same place to commit suicide isn’t creepy enough, there is the element of prep school secret societies and the ritual with the Man in the Mirror. It’s the stuff of teen horror movies: a group of misguided high school students partake in a Bloody Mary-type game, thinking it’s all harmless fun…until one of them winds up brutally impaled on a wrought iron fence.
Normally, I think I would be more critical of a book that had such a scattered focus and tried to do too much. But The Suicide House gets a pass because although it took a while for all the connections to come to light, everything made so much sense once they came together. I doubt this story could have been told any other way. I also enjoyed reading about Rory and Lane, for the amount of time I got to spend with them. Rory is on the autism spectrum and has some OCD tendencies, but her disorders do not define her character. However, I am sure they will present some interesting opportunities to explore her relationship with Lane, as the feelings between them deepen in future installments.
With that said, I am definitely on board to read more of this series, and maybe even go back to read the first book. The Suicide House also ends on a scene that opens the door to limitless possibilities, and I want to be there when Rory and Lane take on their next case.