Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Danielle Girard has unexpectedly took the suspense genre by storm after proving herself as a romantic author, and the Dr. Schwartzman series is one of her most acclaimed works, beginning with the novel Exhume. It tells the story of Annabelle Schwartzman, a medical examiner for the San Francisco PD, and her foray into a case centred on a victim bearing strange resemblances to herself, leading on the trail of a killer far from finished in his work.
Table of contents
Danielle Girard Introduces Dr. Schwartzman
The profession of medical examiner, though morbid, is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating practices in modern science. The human body hides an untold amount of secrets, and the dead still have plenty of stories to tell. In Danielle Girard‘s Exhume, the first novel in the bestselling Dr. Schwartzman series, we follow the titular doctor on a journey of personal discovery during her work with the San Francisco Police Department.
Doctor Annabelle Schwartzman is a woman with a troubled past, having escaped from an abusive husband years ago and only now finding her own place in the world. Despite having left it all behind, she can’t help but live with a fear of him returning one day, keeping her constantly looking over her shoulder and sleeping with one eye open.
Her work at the San Francisco PD has turned out to be her true calling in life, and working alongside detective Hal Harris has given her the kind of purpose she could only dream about. Uncovering the tales hidden by the dead, especially in their final moments, is to her a sacred duty, one she can handle in large part due to her detachment from the victims.
However, the latest case to fall into her lap will test the very limits of her being. The victim is a young woman lying in bed, holding a bouquet of yellow flowers, her husband’s favourite colour. As she examines the body she discovers a necklace which appears to be an exact replica of the one Anna is wearing, a touching gift from her father.
Though Harris does believe the possibility of her husband returning, there isn’t concrete evidence to work off, putting Anna increasingly on edge with each passing day. When another body turns up, this time that of a close friend to Anna’s aunt Ava (who helped her escape the abusive relationship), it becomes clear the killer has one final target in mind, and the countdown begins to find him before he accomplishes his sordid task.
In forensic pathology, there were no heroics. Just unanswered questions.― Danielle Girard, Exhume
The Diabolical Villain in Exhume
Naturally, different authors have their own strengths and weaknesses, but we can still examine trends in modern literature to extract some general truths, and in my opinion, on the whole, the art of writing a truly captivating and despicable villain is one starting to lose itself in favour of the focus shifting towards nuanced and layered protagonists.
Now, we’ll get to the main character in this medical thriller a bit later, but first I would like to focus on the villain himself, who for my money ended up being the real driving force behind this novel. Finding and stopping him slowly becomes the only thing which matters, pushing the plot to accelerate further and further until it reaches just about the fastest pace a thriller could possibly have.
His ominous presence haunts nearly every scene in Exhume, with Danielle Girard making it feel like he’s always lurking somewhere in the background, just out of sight, planning his next insidious move, his next abhorrent murder. We never exactly feel safe for Annabelle, and while it is obvious she survives considering the series is named after her, I couldn’t help but feel nervous for what she might be made to endure before the ordeal’s end.
Unlike many other works of suspense and murder mysteries, the killer isn’t just someone relegated to he shadows, only to serve as a tool in the climax to then be disposed of. We get to know his mentality, his intentions, and the means he’s prepared to use in order to accomplish his sordid goals. His motivations aren’t logical, but rather, birthed from the purely evil core within him.
Having a villain you can truly revile is important because it gives real heft and meaning to their ultimate defeat at the hands of the protagonist, it creates a significant challenge to be overcome and essentially makes the entire journey worthwhile. David was only great because he slew Goliath; had he fought a weakling, it is unlikely anyone would have taken notice of his story.
The Medical Examiner’s Investigation
As great of a villain as the book might have, Anna is our protagonist, and as such is our primary focus throughout the novel. Naturally, she needs to be a match for the evil she is facing, and at the onset she doesn’t appear ready for it at all. We are made aware of her fragile internal state on more than one occasion, with the subject of spousal abuse tackled with enough tact not to feel too preachy or out of place.
There are certain moments in Exhume where she makes the types of decisions I would qualify as questionable, and more than a few events actually paint her in a bad light, making her flaws float up to the surface. The more we get to know her, the more we see of both the good and the bad making up her inner world. Ultimately, to me it seemed like the author presented her as a deeply-flawed human being, but one with massive potential for improvement and self-realization.
The investigation itself pays a lot more attention to moving the plot where the author wants it to be, rather than strictly adhering to procedural codes. While it does create certain moments where you have to suspend your disbelief, on the whole I didn’t find it very problematic to deal with, especially considering how captivating the mystery itself turned out to be.
Going from one victim to the next and the secrets hidden in their dying moments make for a unique journey of discovery, one which constantly makes for excellent plot twists and the occasional red herring to keep us on our toes. Overall, the medical element is well integrated into what would otherwise be a regular thriller. Anna shows her astuteness time and time again, coming to the difficult yet correct conclusions, while Harris proves himself a sturdy and reliable partner during the ordeal.
At the end of it all there were a few minor unresolved plot points which left me a little confused as to why they were added in the first place, being pretty good set-ups for potential twists down the line. Nevertheless, the climax was about as explosive as one could expect from highly-touted works in the genre, and though Anna doesn’t turn into the perfect being overnight, her personal odyssey of self-understanding has moved a considerable amount.
|399||Thomas & Mercer||Oct. 1 2016||978-1503939301|
The Final Verdict
Exhume by Danielle Girard is a top-notch medical thriller following an interestingly flawed protagonist on her collision course with a truly loathsome villain, all while weaving the profession of medical examiner into the plot, as well as the topic of spousal abuse. It does have a few faults to its name, but in my personal opinion, they didn’t prevent me from enjoying the book.
If you’re looking for a solid suspense novel which focuses on plot progression and characterization above all, then I believe you’ll enjoy what this book has to offer.
Danielle Girard is an American author primarily known to dabble in the romance and suspense genres. She is best-known for her for 2002 novel Chasing Darkness, which won a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award, as well as The Rookie Club and Dr. Schwartzman series, which include bestsellers such as Dead Center, One Clean Shot, Grave Danger, Exhume and Excise.