Bring Me Back a Good (if not convincing) Mystery

By B. A. Paris
St. Martin's Press, 304 pages

Bring Me Back is a mystery that will keep you engrossed, even when you can't stand the protagonist, and even though a central reveal comes too early. Overall it's a readable and clever novel, even when it's not very convincing.

It was gutsy of Ms. Paris to cast Finn McQuaid as her lead, as he's the kind of jerk you'd avoid in real-life if you had an ounce of commonsense. Finn is vain, furtive, quick-tempered, and self-centered. He's also financially set thanks to an old friend, Harry, who helped him get his feet on the ground after a testosterone-fueled assault by bringing Finn into his high-powered London investment firm. The book is set between the years 2002 and 2016, which also tells us that Finn lined his nest during the global recession. As we know, profit-takers during those years are unlikely candidates for sainthood.

You'd better have a good tale if you want readers to connect with an egoist such as Finn. It's here that Paris casts her finest spell. Not much actually happens in Bring Me Back, but the novel is a bit like the old Alfred Hitchcock film Gaslight in that it sucks us into a psychological whirlpool. It's also like Hitchcock in that the more you suspend belief, the better you'll enjoy the spin.

Paris leads with intrigue: A British couple heading home from a French vacation makes a rest stop. When the male driver returns from the toilet, his female companion has disappeared without a trace. We soon learn that the couple is Finn and his girlfriend, Layla Gray. The book goes back and forth between time and point of view, and we immediately learn that Finn is an unreliable narrator. He is quite naturally the prime suspect in Layla's disappearance. Though he's cleared of wrong-doing, he informs us that he told both French and English authorities the truth, "just not the whole truth."    

We also learn that Finn met Layla in the Underground—he an upscale Yuppie on his way to a party, and she a Scottish country bumpkin in London for the first time with no clue that she'd never find a youth hostel bed on New Year's Eve. Layla ends up staying at the posh flat Finn shares with Harry and before you can say, "Holy plot device," Finn has dumped his girlfriend for Layla. Harry is baffled as Layla is everything Finn is not: sweet, vulnerable, reckless, non-calculating, and naïve is ways that blur the line between inexperience and mental instability. The last trait surfaces anew when she and Finn move to a country cottage, but Layla begins to act oddly. She claims she longs for London because Devon reminds her too much of the Isle of Lewis, where she grew up. It also makes her miss her sister, Ellen, who stayed on Lewis to care for their father in his final days, even though he was an abusive alcoholic lout. But the trip to France was not an engagement trip, as Finn told police. Was the purpose something more sinister? 

Twelve years pass. Layla has been declared legally dead, Finn now lives a quiet life in the Cotswolds, and he is affianced to Ellen, Layla's sister. She is Layla's opposite—calm, sophisticated, sensible, demure…. But the very announcement of impending nuptials sets off a string of bizarre consequences that begin when Ellen receives in the mail the missing piece of a Russian doll set she lost as a child. Only Layla knew about this. Other Russian dolls appear, with Finn doing his best to snatch them away before Ellen discovers them. There are reports of Ellen sightings and Finn begins to get emails with information that only Layla knew. Is she back? Is this a sick joke? Why doesn't she show herself? These questions haunt Finn. He becomes more and more agitated and irrational—which doesn't make him any more likable.

As I suggested earlier, much of Bring Me Back is more or less a crib of Gaslight, with the gender roles reversed. Although I unraveled a few rather obvious clues early on, I give Paris credit in that I did not anticipate the mystery's resolution. Nor did I particularly buy it once I finished the novel and thought about it. But perhaps this is the classic definition of a good summer read—one that keeps you swirling in the whirlpool until you cling to a branch, pull yourself out, and discover that the churning water was only two feet deep.

Thanks to St. Martin's Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this novel.

Rob Weir


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