Murder Road: A Ghost and Lots of MacGuffins




Murder Road (2024)

By Simone St. James

Berkley/Penguin Group, 352 pages.



Canadian writer Simone St. James is known for paranormal thrillers in a nouveau Gothic style. Her latest, Murder Road, takes us to the shores of Lake Michigan in 1995. Newlyweds Eddie Carter and April Delray are heading for a honeymoon on the cheap. He repairs cars and she works the snack bar at a bowling alley, so there’s not much cash to throw around.


Theirs is also a get-acquainted trip as they got married just six months after meeting. He’s an Iraq vet suffering from PTSD, though April seldom sees signs of it, and he doesn’t know that Delray is one of several surnames April has had in her life. Her mother is supposedly deceased, but there's much Eddie has yet to discover about his bride. They are each in their mid-20s and, Eddie’s military service notwithstanding, have some growing up to do. But their giddy blue-collar desire for one another could have been yanked from a Bruce Springsteen song.


It's dark and pouring rain as they aim for Five Pines Resort, get off the interstate at the wrong exit, and find themselves heading for Coldlake Falls via Atticus Road. Why did Eddie turn his Pontiac onto this road? He's not sure, but it felt like it was the right way to go. Wrong!  They spot of a sopping wet figure by the road who seems distressed. They offer her a ride, learn her name is Rhonda Jean, but must rush her to a hospital as she’s bleeding all over the backseat. On the way, a black truck appears to be following them, but it speeds away when they turn toward the hospital. April has time only to see a young woman with long hair glaring at her from the bed of the pickup.


Eddie carries Rhonda Jean into emergency room. As they tell the intake nurse what they know, police arrive and advise that Rhonda Jean has died. They also behave as if Eddie and April are suspects and when Quentin, a state police detective arrives, he treats them as murderers. The Carters–April hasn’t had time to change her name but assumes Eddie’s family name–are flabbergasted when ordered not to leave town and lodge them with a 40ish woman named Rose, who seems hostile to the police and the Carters alike. Eddie and April are cozy enough, if one overlooks the Princess Diana* memorabilia, but this isn’t exactly a romantic getaway.


The command to stay in town is one of several MacGuffins–a device that exists solely to service the plot–in Murder Road. Police cannot detain you unless they charge you and, had they done so, even a public defender would have sprung the Carters in a flash. But this is a ghost story, not a courtroom drama. As such, there are many things in the plot that defy logic. St. James fleshes out some characters–especially Rose–and leaves others more hazy. We don’t learn until the very end why Quentin is acting as if he's auditioning for The Fugitive, why the high school Snell sisters are obsessed with an Atticus Lane ghost legend, or why the lakeside camping spot of Hunter Beach is presented as a kind of hippies-meet-bikers-and-hipsters haven. It’s 1995, after all, so hippies would be anachronistic unless the MacGuffin served the book’s central device of unsolved murders along Atticus Lane. No concrete motives are present, though the Snell sisters think they are all linked to a ghost with unfinished business.


To make such a thesis feasible, St. James adds more MacGuffins. The Carters find an unexpected ally in Rose and, instead of opening Pandora’s box, the Carters’ independent investigations unearth vital clues of close encounters of the creepy kind. The novel’s resolution rests upon linked contrivances that stretch credulity.


It was refreshing to read a novel whose protagonists are not spoiled rich toffs, trendy bourgeoisie, or clingy Millennials. I also credit St. James for a story that’s scary enough, but not particularly bloody. If you can get past the MacGuffins and logic holes, Murder Road is a decent whodunit thriller. Still, one must fault St. James for violating Alfred Hitchcock’s dictum that successful MacGuffins require artful ways of hiding them. You’d have to be as clueless as the Carters to miss them whilst reading Murder Road.


Rob Weir


* FYI: Rose was not enshrining Diana, who was alive in 1995.


Galatea and Pygmalion: The Root of Centuries of Inspiration


Galatea (2013/2022)

By Madeline Miller

Ecco, 64 pages



Madeline Miller has won deserved acclaim for her reimaging of Greek mythology. I have read both Song Of Achilles and Circe, both of which made me go back to stories I read in undergraduate literature and history classes. In 2013, Miller wrote a short story/novella titled Galatea, which is the source for numerous Pygmalion plays, novels, poems, movies, and TV show variants (including several Star Trek episodes).


Pygmalion is best known in antiquity as a poem within Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In 1913, it became a play by George Bernard Shaw that the theatre and movie industry presented as My Fair Lady. Other movies you might know that are inspired by Pygmalion include Lars and the Real Girl, Ex Machina, Bicentennial Man, and Ruby Sparks. In essence, though, just about any cultural product involving some sort of magical or unexpected transformation owes a debt to Ovid.    


Rodin's Version


Painting by Gerome



Ovid’s Pygmalion was one of several Greek and Roman stories of an inanimate object that comes to life. (You could think of it as the inspiration for Pinocchio as well.) In Ovid’s telling and Miller’s modern reading, a Cypriot sculptor named Pygmalion carved a statue so beautiful that he literally falls in love with it to the point of kissing and caressing the female ivory body. (Miller has Galatea made of stone, but that’s a small matter as numerous sculptures were so rendered.) During a feast for the Aphrodite, the goddess is so moved by Pygmalion’s devotion and situation that she makes Galatea slowly come to life. She and Pygmalion have a daughter named Paphos. (In some tales Paphos is a son and a daughter named Metharme is their second child.)


Painting by Boucher


Miller’s story is unique in that it flips the switch and, like most of her work, tells the story from the woman’s perspective–even to the point of probing what Galatea was thinking when she was still made of stone. Her feminist takes on Greek myths would have been considered shocking, perhaps even subversive, in antiquity. Lucky for us, she’s writing now. Hers is a charming and thought-provoking tale that can be read in about half an hour or so. Ecco has reissued this 2013 story with a (slightly) revised afterword from Miller. If you’ve not read it, I highly recommend it. If you have, it’s worth revisiting. As the many uses of Pygmalion myth indicate, a good story never grows old.


Rob Weir