August 8, 2020

Book Review: ‘Last Day’ by Luanne Rice is ‘a Unique Combination of Psychological Thriller, Cozy Murder Mystery’

Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome Paulette Zander to LymeLine today as an occasional guest book reviewer. Many readers will remember Paulette from her days running ‘The Happy Carrot Bookshop’ in Old Lyme. An accomplished author herself, Paulette has reviewed the latest work by local resident, the acclaimed author Luanne Rice, whose 34th novel has just been published.

Internationally-known local author, Luanne Rice, has just published her 34th novel, Last Day; her first in the mystery/thriller genre. Last Day is also the first pick of The New London Day’s new regional book club, in partnership with Bank Square Books in Mystic. The new book club is the brainchild of Rick Koster, who is the arts and music reporter for the paper.

Last Day was also chosen for the January “First Reads” selection on Amazon and is also touted by such illustrious authors as Lee Child, Tess Gerritson, Lisa Unger, and Lisa Scottoline.

I will state at the outset for dedicated fans, that although this book is a departure from her other adult fiction, there’s no need to panic. The themes of love, loss, sisterly devotion, betrayals, and family ties are skillfully interwoven. 

The difference with this novel is that all those wonderful, familiar, lyrical elements are interlaced with a murder mystery that is at times gruesome and gritty. That dark aspect is unexpected, but Rice has found the right balance. She juxtaposes the backstories of the victim’s family and friends with disturbing details about the heinous murder, but she doesn’t dwell overly long on the gruesome and the gritty. This makes for a unique combination of psychological thriller and cozy murder mystery.

The story is set on the Connecticut shoreline and is loosely based on the murder of Ellen Sherman in 1985 in Niantic. That real crime took years to solve. The murder in Last Day doesn’t take quite so long to unravel, but it is as baffling as the case it is based on. A secondary mystery involving the theft of a painting called Moonlight compounds the story.

NYT best-selling author Luanne Rice. File photo

Rice is adept at showing the immediacy of pain and betrayal, and there’s plenty of both in this story. The characters are varied and interesting and they all have a plausible motive. Rice provides plenty of red herrings to keep you guessing until the end. The subtle clues are also there, but like any good mystery, many readers will  have to go back to find them.

As always, for local fans, it is fun to guess or recognize the various locales. Rice has featured the village of Black Hall in many of her novels, so fans familiar with her work know that Black Hall is Old Lyme. One assumes the art gallery on Main Street is the Cooley Art Gallery, and the depictions of the flora and fauna conjures familiar images for anyone who has walked, hiked, or boated in the area. Many New London landmarks make an appearance as well.

Interspersed throughout the story are some disturbing elements that are graphically depicted. However, these passages are relieved by Rice’s excellent pacing. She ratchets down the tension by occasionally segueing into tidbits of art and nautical history and other interesting diversions. She provides just enough intriguing detail to make the reader want to learn more, I often stopped reading long enough to jot down notes to Google after I finished the book. 

I’ve been reading Rice’s novels since the early 1990s, and I’ve always marveled at her exquisite nature prose. She once again doesn’t disappoint in this novel. If Rice wrote an Eyewitness Travel Guide for Old Lyme, the town would be overrun with tourists eager to meander through this hidden gem.

Another aspect of Rice’s writing I’ve always admired is her depiction of women. She portrays strong, capable, independent women. She doesn’t make them super women, though. They have vulnerabilities and flaws. Her female characters aren’t artificial, which makes them believable. The female characters in Last Day are simultaneously fragile and strong.

If I can find any fault with this story, it is that I was initially disappointed when the killer’s identity was revealed. I questioned whether or not the killer’s motive was strong enough. But, after some thought, I had to concede that I don’t understand any killer’s motives.

I’ve read extensively about Ted Bundy, but I still haven’t figured out how he could have committed such vicious murders. I think that’s true for most of us. We aren’t murderers, and we cannot fathom how or why anyone would take another’s life. All murder is incomprehensible, so why would I expect the motive of a fictional character to make any sense to me? In Last Day, the motive is as mysterious as the murder, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Paulette Zander

About the author: Paulette  Zander is the former owner of ‘The Happy Carrot Bookshop’ in Old Lyme. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in library science at St. John’s University in New York City. Her short fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction World, 62nd Stories, Everyday Fiction, Pearce Publications, The Penman Review, The Longridge Review, and Crack the Spine. She splits her time between Niantic, Connecticut and Taos, New Mexico and is currently writing her second novel, but occasionally dispenses writing advice, random observations, and flash fiction on her blog at Ink to You: Rhetoric for the Masses and on Twitter @InktoYou.