The Sanatorium: Cheap Thrills



By Sarah Pearse

Penguin Group, 416 pages.





Elin Warner is on a ski holiday to Switzerland. In recent memory, her eight-year-old son Sam died in an accident and her mother of cancer. Elin dares hope a trip with her partner Will, whom she fears is losing patience with her, will quell her grief. It seldom works that way, in life or in fiction.


Sarah Pearse takes us to creepy places in her debut novel The Sanatorium. Locals still mention the sanatorium, though the grand building that once cared for people with mental disorders has been done over as Le Sommet Hotel, a minimalist glass and steel luxury facility set high in the Alps. Will, an architect, loves it; Elin finds it soulless. Nevertheless, she puts on her game face in the hope of fixing herself and repairing a deeply broken relationship with her brother Isaac, a longtime screw-up, who is there with his fiancé Laure.


Hopes of restful readjustment vanish with the discovery of the body of architect Daniel Lemaitre, who designed the hotel makeover. Daniel has long been missing, but his associates believed that he decided to leave the fast track and live in obscurity. Nope! When other people, including Laure, begin to vanish, things get hairy. Le Sommet developer Lucas Caron and his sister Cecile, the hotel’s general manager, try to calm guests, but they rub people the wrong way. After all, it’s hard to put a positive spin on disappearances. Anyone with a modicum of sense jumps on the bus to the valley below, despite the fact that it’s a scary ride down switchback turns in a snowstorm. Before everyone can vacate, though, a blizzard and avalanche close the road, stranding eight guests and 37 staff members.


The Sanatorium is a nerve-racking thriller in which things go bump in the snow. There’s nothing like terrified people with no place to go for revelations to ooze out, be it accidentally, strategically, or directly. Some will involve the old sanatorium, others are about loved ones, and still others concern grudges old and recent. Because it will be days before Swiss officials can mount the summit, Elin is authorized to launch a careful investigation and keep them apprised of developments. Just two small problems, Elin is an emotional basket case and she has neglected to tell local law enforcement that she’s an on-leave cop about to lose her job.


Can things get any worse? A rising body count and more disappearances accomplish that. Elin came close to being dispatched by a gas-mask wearing sadist and it’s hard to feel comfortable when it’s clear a serial killer is at work. That sicko has a gruesome modus operandi; victims surface with three fingers missing and wearing bracelets bearing non-sequential five-digit numbers. If you’re prone to nightmares, you might not wish to read this during daylight hours. What do we have here, Freddy Krueger with a mask?


Pearse sustains tension throughout because she populates her novel with liars. If no one is trustworthy, the usual process of winnowing red herrings and identifying legitimate suspects short-circuits. In a book in which anyone could be guilty, you must wend your way to the end where revelations come Agatha Christie-like. You might, however, feel cheated. Clues and circumstances stack to the point of overabundance, which leaves us with revealed connections that strain probability.


Ultimately Pearse is better at creating a nouveau Gothic mood than in penning a convincing murder mystery. It was a good idea to dispense with an omniscient investigator–they too stretch credulity–but Pearse solves one problem by creating another. We know that Elin is damaged, but not even an a messed up ex-cop would commit as many procedural errors as she. It’s one thing to invoke a Pandora’s box scenario, but it seldom works multiple times with the same person lifting the lid. Pearse paints herself into a metaphorical corner and drifts to conclusions that are more deus ex machina than logical. Plus, she over-explains; not every character or detail requires a lurid backstory.


This is a wildly popular novel, but I have mixed feelings about it. On many levels it’s clumsy and unbelievable. Yet it’s hard to dismiss that it’s also filled with nail-biting thrills. Many of them are undeniably cheap thrills, but evidence suggests we can be bought.


Rob Weir

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