Luanne Rice Unveils her Tragic Detective
In recent decades, the murder mystery genre has seen a somewhat peculiar overall trend in regards to the gravity of death and its consequences. While this isn’t a unilateral and all-encompassing observation, on the whole I very much have the impression the more modern the literature we examine, the more the spotlight tends to be taken away from the human suffering in favour of unveiling the mystery like a puzzle. However, some authors swim in the opposite direction of the common current, Luanne Rice being one of them with her novel titled Last Day.
The story begins by taking us to a small seaside community where a family is struck by a great tragedy. Two sisters, Beth and Kate, see their mother mysteriously disappear, along with a famous Moonlight painting. Few answers are ever found to this case, despite the persistent investigating of detective Reid. Unable to find the girls the answers they so desperately need, Reid vows to, at the very least, watch over the girls and keep them safe… which he does for twenty years.
Today, both girls have moved on from the tragedy of their youth, with Beth running a family art gallery and Kate being a pilot. Just when all seems perfect, Beth is found strangled to death in her own home, and once again, the Moonlight painting has gone missing.
Her death seems utterly senseless, driving detective Reid to the edge of madness as he devotes himself body and soul to solving this case, and with a whole lot of luck, maybe close the book on his failure twenty years ago, perhaps finding some semblance of personal salvation.
The Consequences of a Tragedy in Last Day
As I mentioned at the very beginning of this review, this is a murder mystery which places a rather big focus on the effects of a tragic murder on the human mind and a small community, to the point where I would say it actually takes precedence over the murder mystery itself for good chunks of the book.
While the questions as to who did it and why are constantly roasting in the background and beckoning us, Rice doesn’t rush us there and ensures we understand the profound implications of the murder.
There are a fair number of passages simply dedicated to describing the town and taking glimpses here and there at the internal worlds of its inhabitants. Though we don’t exactly spend a lot of time with most of them, the various elements we learn about the characters all feel very plausible and realistic, to the point where I think many of us will be able to relate them to people we know in the real world, if not ourselves. Even if we don’t exactly care about these characters, they still represent small yet revealing pieces of the big puzzle.
Rice obviously puts a lot of effort into coloring and fleshing out the town’s inhabitants to make it feel like a real, living place, and I believe it’s largely for the purpose of ensuring the tragedy can actually have a believable and tangible effect on them. In other words, the more we know about what they feel and think, the more profoundly we can examine their relation to the events, their varying perspectives on them, and witness the repercussions some of them are enduring.
I found Rice did a particularly great job with detective Reid, describing in harrowing depth at times the tortured workings of his inner mind, weighed down by his immense failures.
The Horrific Puzzle of Death
As far as the actual murder mystery itself is concerned, from a purely “puzzle” standpoint, I thought the premise was simply excellent, presenting us with a mystery already spanning multiple decades and having multiple layers of complexity from the very beginning. Personally, I was very much hooked by the mysterious motivation behind the crime, but especially by the significance of the Moonlight painting.
While the elements this mystery introduces are by no means revolutionary or anything new, they are cobbled together in a way where they all complement each other and add layers of complexity.
As far as the development of the investigation goes, this is where I feel the book will present the greatest challenge to some readers. As I mentioned before, the so-called “human” aspect does take precedence over the murder investigation on the whole, and there are numerous occasions where it all but comes to a halt.
Personally-speaking, I didn’t mind this type of pace in the slightest, especially since the breaks we take from the investigation are nearly always insightful about the world the story takes place in, and truth be told, they’re just well-written in general. Nevertheless, if you’re strictly looking for a purely straightforward murder investigation, this book might present some challenges.
There is also one thing I would like to remark on, and it’s the general tone of the book, or overall atmosphere if you will. Like many books in this genre, Last Day deals with some fairly gruesome and heavy subject matter at various points, like the death of an unborn infant.
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These are the sorts of passages which tend to stay with you, and even if I believe the author intended them with a more profound purpose, I can completely understand how they would be seen as there for shock value more than anything else. Once again though, different people are bothered to varying degrees by darker topics, so it would be something to carefully consider before reading the book.
The Final Verdict
Last Day by Luanne Rice is a rather moving murder mystery with a very compelling promise and a methodical development focusing more on the characters and the effects of the murder on the small seaside community.
While it does have some heavier themes and a slower pace than what we’re generally used to in the genre, I do believe this book is very much worth reading if those elements don’t really bother you.
Luanne Rice is an American novelist with over thirty published works to her name, translated in twenty-four languages. She holds an honorary degree from Connecticut College, an honorary doctorate of human letters from St. Joseph College, not to mention the 2014 Connecticut Governor’s Arts Award in Literary Arts for excellence and lifetime achievement.
Her debut novel, Angels All Over Town, was published back in 1985, and some of her better-known works since then include Crazy in Love, Blue Moon, and Silver Bells.