Twofer on reviews this month, which will leave me only one whole Karen Rose novel behind. Spoilers ahead…
Who is it by?
Monster in the Closet is a romantic thriller by American writer Karen Rose. It’s set in the universe of her Baltimore series and is a bit of a departure for Rose – she normally doesn’t revisit a series after moving onto another city.
Who’s in it?
Well, the male and female main characters are Ford Elkhart and Taylor Dawson, and at one point Taylor jokes about having made a spreadsheet to keep track of who’s who. The Baltimore series has a cast of thousands (and this instalment introduced even more), but besides the two leads the focus this time was on Taylor’s father Clay, with a smaller role for JD Fitzpatrick, a Baltimore detective who was the male MC from the first in the series.
I’ll try and keep this brief, because there’s a lot of backstory here. Ok, so Taylor is the long-lost daughter of private investigator Clay Maynard – long-lost because his ex-wife deliberately hid her from him, falsely claiming that she’d been abused so that her strictly religious parents would accept her getting divorced from him to marry someone else (she’d accidentally gotten pregnant after sleeping with Clay to make the Someone Else jealous). Taylor’s mother maintained the lies all her life, convincing Taylor that her father was a monster who’d steal her away, before confessing the truth to Taylor on her deathbed.
This prompts Taylor, a psychology graduate, to get an internship at an equine therapy charity run by a friend of Clay’s to try and get to know him better without giving away her identity, where she meets Ford, the son of the charity’s owner. They start to fall for each other, as Taylor bonds with one of her clients, Jazzie Jarvis, a crucial witness in a murder case that Detective JD is investigating, and meets her father for the first time. Then Jazzie is kidnapped, the murderer tries to kill Taylor, and she and Ford help the police track him down and arrest him.
What I liked.
Taylor and Clay’s meeting.
I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING! Anyway, it’s only hayfever. Creeps up on you when you least expect it. Like midnight. When it’s snowing outside…
Joking aside, Rose has created a group of characters that I care about, and you can’t say fairer than that. We know all about Clay’s pain at the loss of his daughter from Watch Your Back, so to see him quite unexpectedly find her again, at a point where he’s beginning to lose hope, feels poignant and heart-warming. The scene itself is well-written, Clay’s reaction is well-described (he recognises Taylor instantly because of how she resembles his mother), it hits home, and the reactions of all his friends are also well-described, and nicely varied. It would be very easy for Rose to have portrayed a universally welcoming response to Taylor from the entire Baltimore circle, all of whom know how much Clay’s been hurt by not being able to see her. But, whilst Clay is delighted, his wife Stevie is much more confrontational and defensive, at least initially, and JD is outright suspicious, finding the timing of Taylor’s arrival and bonding with his key witness to be very convenient. In some ways, Stevie’s daughter (Clay’s stepdaughter) Cordelia is more grown up than the grown ups, accepting Taylor more quickly than most of them, and, in another heart-string-tugging moment, telling Clay that it’s ok for him to love Taylor too.
Rose captures the enormous impact that this moment has on all of her characters, the gamut of emotions that they run through, and the varied reactions of the people around Clay and Taylor, and she does it in a way that hits home for a reader. I really can’t ask for more than an author who moves me to tears for her characters.
Thrills and spills.
Ok, so when you pick up a Karen Rose novel, you know more or less what you’ll get – a male and female main character who fall for each other, a killer on a spree connected to one or both of them, and some very fucked-up psychology. Rose’s novels go to some seriously dark places at times. Monster in the Closet features a woman whose lies drove one girl to suicide, another to alcoholism, and separated Taylor from her father for over twenty years; we also get accidental matricide, fratricide, a contemplated double child-murder, drug abuse, self-stitching a bullet wound. It’s probably one of her lighter ones.
I’m going to disclaim now, that I won’t touch too much on the romance parts of any of Rose’s novels. Simply put, it’s not really a genre that engages me. I do not believe in criticising entire genres; the whole point of genre fiction is that there’s something in it for everyone, and every genre has its own clichés and tropes (crime sure as hell does). I don’t personally tend to find romance particularly engaging, I’m not at all familiar with what I should expect from a romance novel, so I won’t comment on those aspects as much. What I will say, is that I reckon that a reader should find a good example of any genre to be an engaging and interesting read, and I’d hold Rose’s novels up as proof – I always find the romance aspects interesting, and I care whether or not the characters get together. For me, that’s enough.
As regards the actual thrills and spills… in Monster in the Closet, we know that the killer is Gage Jarvis immediately, and JD isn’t too far behind in figuring it out. But, he doesn’t have any evidence, and so it’s a race against time for Taylor to get the key witness, Gage’s supposed daughter Jazzie Jarvis, talking. The reader knows that Gage thinks that Jazzie might have told Taylor something, so he ends up kidnapping Jazzie and trying to shoot Taylor. After that, it’s a race against time to find Jazzie.
Rose doesn’t usually present the killer in plain sight like this, she usually springs it as a surprise on the reader (so it’s often difficult to trust the friends of either main character), but in this case it really works. It allows Gage to become a more fleshed-out villain (more on this below). Knowing that the man she believes is her father killed her mother helps explain Jazzie’s silence. And Gage’s relationships with his mother and brother add to the tension – especially that with his mother, who, unwilling to acknowledge her son’s brutality and depravity, brings Jazzie and her sister Janie right to Gage. Gage himself is not an unstoppably brilliant villain, a number of his plans don’t work which adds to the believability, but he’s cunning, ruthless, determined, and like all good villains, has convinced himself that what he’s doing is right.
The action sequences are fast-paced and gripping, and the build-up to them hooks you right in. And, as much as Gage isn’t unstoppably brilliant, neither are Taylor and Ford, or any other character, indestructible. Both of them are wounded during the story, and Rose chooses the perfect time to critically injure another central character. They’re more relatable because they hurt and bleed; and the stakes are higher for the reader because we know that they can be hurt and bleed.
Basically, Rose’s novels grip from start to finish, and this one’s no exception.
Some variations from the usual format.
I mentioned above that you more or less know what you’re going to get with Rose, in that all her novels have the same basic shape. They’re never formulaic, but you know you’re getting a male and female main character, they’re going to have a romantic thing going, and they’ll both confront the killer at the end. But, there are some variations compared to her other novels. In the acknowledgements Rose stated that she didn’t originally plan to write Monster in the Closet and, although you don’t suddenly wind up in a 1930s English mansion where the vicar has just been very tastefully and decorously poisoned, I get the feeling that she used it as opportunity to have a play around with her writing.
The biggest difference is that Taylor and Ford are, in their mid-twenties, at least ten years younger than her protagonists usually are, and their relationship is presented a little differently; Rose up until now has depicted characters finding their forever relationships, but, although Taylor and Ford are clearly really into each other, they talk about if he or she is the One, not that they definitely are. For two much younger characters, that’s an intelligent alteration, although not an altogether surprising one; Rose has depicted divorced characters who married too young before.
We also get a look at the married lives of two of her previous couples, JD and wife Lucy, and of course Clay and Stevie, which is new – main characters from previous stories don’t usually get POV scenes in further ones in which they appear, and it’s nice to see how their lives have developed since they had centre-stage.
And the body count’s lower in this one – I make six, counting Gage’s murder of his ex-wife which happens ‘off-screen,’ before the book actually starts. Rose’s villains typically notch up ten or more.
Some things are, of course, the same. Gage is still on a killing spree, and it’s still Ford and Taylor who confront him at the end. There’s been a slight noirish tinge to the Baltimore series (No One Left to Tell and Watch Your Back featured a major police corruption scandal) that continues in Monster in the Closet, with organised crime boss Cesar Tavilla able to swan into the Baltimore PD’s homicide division and park himself at JD’s desk at will. But the tweaks Rose makes give this book a nice feel, and let us see how the Baltimore characters’ lives have developed.
A sympathetic villain.
This is something that Rose hasn’t always done in the past, her villains have tended to be full-on Chaotic Evil, killing off anyone and/or thing that might get in their way – especially bumping off witnesses. They’re often villains you love to hate, but there’s very rarely any sort of sympathy for them. Gage, however, is easily her most sympathetic villain to date, and not just because he *only* kills six people (and, in the event, decides not to follow through on his plan to kill Jazzie and her little sister Janie after realising that the police have enough evidence to send him away without them). It’s partly because he’s convinced, in his own head at least, that he’s right, and partly because there’s an element of Shakespearian tragedy about him.
Gage was a high-flying defence lawyer, although the seeds of his downfall were always there with his use of cocaine to get him through his workload. He’s presented as always having been narcissistic, and his wife Valerie both cheated on each other, but Gage seems to have tried to do the right thing by Jazzie and Janie until he learnt that neither girl was his – which he learnt when he tried to donate blood to Janie after she was seriously cut falling through a glass door, and she had a blood type she couldn’t have had if she’d been his child. He went from being a poor if well-meaning husband and father to an abusive one.
Gage is still violent and brutal, and doesn’t care about anyone other than himself. But, in his mind at least, everything he does can be justified. He beats Valerie to death because he believes that she sold the house he paid for (she actually lost it when he wouldn’t pay alimony). He kills a junkie he views as worth much less than him so that the police will close their investigation into Valerie’s death, only kills a cop because he was following the junkie, and only kills a dealer because he now needs a fall-guy for the cop’s death. In his head, at least, those are murders he’s been forced into. He accidentally kills his mother. His brother’s death is during a struggle for a gun.
Rose gives us a villain whose spiral started when he tried to do the right thing, and who’s convinced that what he’s doing is right, at least for him. Gage is all the more memorable because of it.
Clay and Taylor’s stepfather.
Taylor had only been conceived because her mother wanted to sleep with Clay to make another man jealous. She lied about Clay being an abuser to get a divorce from him her parent would accept, only to divorce her new husband when he abused her for real. With her lies about Clay now spiralling out of control, she left for California and married for a third time, to Taylor’s stepfather Frederick – of course, telling him that she was fleeing from a violent and relentless ex who she was afraid would steal her daughter away. Frederick, a lawyer, was able to hide them so well that Clay never found them.
As with Taylor’s acceptance into the Baltimore circle, it would be so easy so for Rose to write a hostile relationship between Clay and Frederick, even to make Frederick into a secondary antagonist. Fortunately, Rose is too good a writer who respects her characters too much for that to happen. Instead of the ‘Dad and Stepdad hate each other,’ that we’ve had a thousand times before, we get a mutual recognition from Clay and from Frederick that the other is a man who loves Taylor and wants what’s best for her. They don’t compete for her love. Frederick even starts to see Taylor’s move to Baltimore as a chance for his whole family to have a new start. There’s respect between them.
There are two utterly heart-warming moments in this. First, Clay choosing not to hold any ill-will towards Frederick for hiding Taylor. He recognises instead that Frederick protected her from what he believed was a mortal threat, driving two of his biological daughters to addiction (one to an overdose) in order to do so. I had to take a break at this point because I got a little choked up just reviewing it – both the sacrifices Frederick has made, and Clay’s acceptance that he did what he thought was right.
Second, Frederick gives Clay a copy of every photo he has of Taylor, documenting her life from a young child onwards (tearing up again, by the way). Frederick recognises that he can’t give Clay back the years that he lost, but that he can give Clay a window into what he missed. Again, it’s touching and poignant, and it’s the response of a man who cares for Taylor doing what’s right for her even though he fears losing her now that she’s found Clay.
Clay tells Frederick that he’s been the father he didn’t have to be for Taylor. It’s resolution that plotline deserved, it’s the resolution that the characters deserved, it’s a refreshing new take on the parent-stepparent conflict, and if it doesn’t melt your heart just a little, you’re probably dead inside.
What I had problems with.
Disclaimer: as a crime writer myself it’s always fun to try and spot these, but every crime writer, at the very least, finesses police procedure to some degree or another and if it spoils your enjoyment you’re reading it wrong.
Further disclaimer: I’m British. I don’t know American police procedures anything like as well (they’re often very different) and that’ll limit what I can fairly pick up on.
Having said that, do American cops really investigate murders with such small teams? I’m asking because I genuinely have no idea, in the UK Gage’s first murder alone would be investigated by least a dozen, and probably more, detectives. But The First 48 makes it look like American police forces usually assign half that number at most to a single case.
In general, from what I know of American police procedure, Rose follows it fairly closely. Where she tends to veer away from what real cops do is in her final showdown scenes – the hero and heroine always confront the killer, and to be fair it wouldn’t be anything like as heroic if they did what real cops do and waited behind a Tactical Support Team. Rose usually comes up with at least a plausible reason why the main characters arrive at their confrontation with the killer ahead of their backup. In Monster in the Closet, Ford subdues Gage after he shoots Taylor; they’ve been brought to the building where Gage is holding Jazzie and Janie so that Taylor can keep Jazzie calm after the police rescue her, and basically, Rose falls back on the old ‘Otherwise competent police officers fail to properly surround a dangerous suspect.’ It does happen with real cops in real life, and she actually keeps the scene sufficiently fast-paced that I didn’t notice until I started thinking it over for this review. But I’ve noticed now, so I’m going to bring it up.
As I said, it’s fun to spot, but if it spoils your enjoyment of the book you’ve read it wrong.
Lot of straight white people straight white peopling.
I’m not going to pick up on this too much, because although this is a recent novel, it’s a Baltimore series novel and the diversity in Rose’s novels gets much better in the following Cincinnati series. I honestly feel that the lack of diversity previously was because Rose, who’s a straight white person herself, found it easiest to write about straight white people, but feels more comfortable now relating the experiences of a more diverse group – not least because, when you’re writing about people of colour or LGBTIQ+ people, there are sensitivity issues that it can be easier to avoid. There’s nothing wrong with that.
And, as an SEN teacher, I appreciate the portrayal of a couple with Down’s Syndrome who are able to live independent lives and who are supported by the people around them. Learning difficulties don’t get tackled nearly enough in crime fiction, it was nice to see Rose representing that.
Lay off JD, y’all!
Yes, British people say y’all. One hears it on the bloody televisual device all the time, doncha know!
For the record, I don’t talk like that.
JD is suspicious of Taylor at first and gets a lot of shit for it, from Ford and then from Stevie, his former partner in the Baltimore Police Department. But especially from Ford. All right, fair enough, Ford’s busy falling in love with Taylor, and I did say above that I liked the complex and varied nature of the Baltimore circle’s reaction to Taylor. I think my issue is with JD apologising to Taylor and Ford for his negative reaction later in the novel. I mean, he was basically just doing his job – he’s right to be suspicious of Taylor’s sudden, convenient arrival. Good cops are supposed to assume nothing, believe nothing and check everything, and if JD wasn’t a little paranoid he wouldn’t be a good cop. I think everyone else could do with showing him a bit more understanding.
You’ll like this if…
…you like your thrillers with a lot of heart and poignancy, and you like to be taken to some very dark places whilst being thrilled. Also if you don’t like sleep.
If you’ve enjoyed this review, please check out some of the others, or, alternatively, some of the crime-related blog posts. Or maybe even some of my own short stories. Shameless plugs below…
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