In the Off Season
This is the sort of novel that I find so intriguing it’s hard to put down. Everything from the characters, the pacing and the plot worked together in such a way that the result was a story rich with meaning and texture.
To begin with, I love the character you’ve created in Pat. Here is a strong, independent women who has managed to carve out a successful career for herself. She is well respected in her line of work, and finds fulfillment in helping prosecute the bad guys.
However, Pat is no match for Parkinson’s, the disease that is gradually eroding her health and taking over control of her body. I love that you gave her this handicap. The way in which you show her struggling to accept her limitations gave her character depth. You avoided the pitfall of portraying her as a woman bitter with the hand life has dealt her, yet at the same time you managed to also avoid the opposite extreme of Pat too easily accepting her condition. There are moments when she is full of self-pity, but they don’t last long, so she doesn’t come across as a chronic whiner.
One thing I really appreciated is how you wrote the passage showing Pat, as a child, trying to solve what she thought might be a murder mystery in her neighborhood. This pulls the reader in, helps them to see her as the individual behind the high profile career she has had to leave behind, and what has partly contributed to the woman she is becoming as she tries to come to terms with Parkinson’s. Here’s a snippet that I love, for it shows her being drawn into the investigation into Brett’s death:
I had moved onto another life, and now JJ was asking me to take a step back.
And yet, I was curious. I was still that eleven-year-old with her notebook, peeking into dark corners of gardens and behind fences. I was curious to know what happened to this Brett character. Could it be true that he didn’t commit suicide?
Of course, Pat being Pat, she’s going to want to find out whether or not Brett’s death is a suicide. She is withering away from being so cut off from the city life she’s used to, and not having any career or mental challenges.
John is a perfect partner for Pat and these new complications in her life. He is no-nonsense when it comes to her health and wanting to protect her from her tendency to push herself too hard. I loved the way they interact.
It’s rather endearing how John tries to push her into writing and an interest in art as a means of keeping her busy and safe:
In my husband’s view, writing and art were safe. Writing kept me occupied; buying art kept me entertained. I wasn’t out prepping witnesses or negotiating plea bargains. Writing and art had become the distractions of my golden years.
On the surface, writing and art seem like just the thing with which to fill her new life, but they aren’t enough. And thus the tension between these two which leads to conflict. This was a good choice on your part to have John try so hard to keep her safe, while Pat is resistant to his every effort. Understandably, she is fierce in her need to remain independent and active for as long as she possibly can.
At the beginning of any mystery I’m leery of the author’s ability to keep my interest, more so than I am with any other genre. I’ve read so many mysteries that it doesn’t seem possible to discover any new ones that will engage my mind and curiosity, and prove to be a challenge.
The fact that I found your novel so intriguing is a testament first of all to your well-rounded, believable characters. Sometimes I think a good solid plot is much easier to come up with than characters that the reader can believe in, and care for.
Pat and John immediately had my interest. JJ was a good addition to this story, for he not only was the means of pulling Pat into the mystery of Brett’s death, he also was a catalyst for trying to make some sense of her family’s troubled history. Because JJ is at hand, reminding her so much of her lost brother, she is constantly reminded of the earlier years growing up in that big family.
I especially liked your used of this sentence, woven throughout the story:
He died alone, friendless and hopeless.
I found this sentence to be especially wistful, and full of anguish. Every time I came upon it I felt a pang, which I couldn’t understand, until realizing it reminds me of my stepsister who also died alone, friendless and hopeless. This really struck a chord with me, and will with anyone reading this story who has known the particular sorrow of losing a loved one in this manner.
Jerry: what a colorful person to team up with Pat! He is just what is needed. John is rather quiet and serious, JJ is a bit young for his age (a late bloomer of sorts), and then here comes Jerry with his big personality and his knack for steering an interview in the right direction.
I love the friendship he has with Pat, though as the novel progresses it becomes obvious that something once occurred between them that has caused some undercurrents in their relationship.
I know that he has had a crush on her forever, but it appears that there is more to it than that: some kind of favor he did for her years ago that they are both aware of on some level, even if they never quite talk about it. I don’t think it is ever spelled out. Maybe I’m just being suspicious (or hopeful), but this makes me think maybe there is a sequel in the works since this secret was never explained.
Yes, Jerry was a pleasure to read. You made him come across as one of those people who is totally dedicated to what he does and does it well, but is not totally immune to the temptation to cut corners when needed. Or even to getting something on others that he can use against them later, if necessary. I like that you give him this edge, that he isn’t simply someone who moons over Pat and acts like a boy scout. No, he is capable of being underhanded; in fact, for a bit I began thinking he was somehow behind the murders of Brett and Tammy. I didn’t know how or why, but I began doubting him big time. Because you created such a credible character, I was able to actually wonder if he were capable of such crimes. He’s not one dimensional by any means. I think I finally gave up on Jerry as the murderer because of what Pat always liked to stress: “Motive!”
Every character in this novel stands on their own as being uniquely themselves. I love George Potter! He’s a great guy, but like Jerry he’s not perfect. He is a wonderful addition to this story. During the scene that happens near the end of the novel, where Pat goes to the cabin alone and meets the murderer, I had a few moments of thinking it was George’s wife. It sounds silly now that I know how wrong I was, but the murderer was humming, and I remembered that his wife hummed while in the kitchen putting away groceries.
(What an excellent job you did during that cabin scene, by the way, in keeping the murderer’s identity hidden as long as possible!)
I was impressed with your portrayal of Danielle Nolan’s frailty. There is something about her, something that seems broken and almost too vulnerable. Living in that big house with all that light must be a trial to such a sensitive soul. Her father comes across credibly as the concerned, protective father. A bit too harsh at times, but eventually I realized that he was just worried about Danielle’s well-being.
Lauren, Roberto, Tammy, Nicole . . . all of these fit in perfectly with your story line.
Nicole comes across as someone who is not always forthright. I think she did care for Brett to an extent. She struck me as just the right kind of ex-wife for him to have. I’m not sure why, but from all that everyone said about Brett she just seemed like someone he would have been married to, and then found he couldn’t live up to her expectations.
I found that your plot unfolded in such a way that it seemed like there was always something interesting or puzzling going on, even in the quieter scenes. This is the kind of mystery that has about it a deceptive quietness—a musing quality. As with any murder mystery there are action scenes, but in yours none are written simply to wow the reader. What I mean is, the action scenes happen as a natural consequence of whatever was put in motion by someone. They make sense. And the quiet scenes, such as when Pat is contemplating the future progression of her illness and we are able to see a bit more deeply into her soul, capture the tone of this novel.
This is a thoughtful novel, a mystery that is quiet in its impact and, because of that, resonates after the last word is read. This is my absolute favorite type of mystery novel. I don’t know if there is a specific name for this kind of mystery, I just know what I like and what touches me deeply.
There are some mysteries I read merely to challenge my puzzle solving skills. This usually happens when plot takes precedence over character. But these are not the type of mysteries I naturally gravitate towards. I much prefer a mystery (or novel of any kind) where character is not secondary to plot.
You peppered this story with people whose lives intersect in such a way that unresolved issues and tensions converge, and alter those lives forever. A tragedy occurs. Another tragedy of sorts is quietly playing out beneath the surface of things, the tragedy of Pat’s descent into Parkinson’s and what it means to the course of the rest of her life. What it means in the context of her marriage to John.
I like that while she is working with Jerry to solve the mystery of how and why Brett died, she is all the while dealing with this mysterious invader that is wreaking havoc on her body. I don’t think it’s an easy thing to portray, this difficulty she is having coming to terms with her “new normal.” Yet you do it with apparent ease.
The pacing of this story worked for me. Had it been more of an action novel I might have deemed it too slow. But it is perfect for this type of story. If you revved up the action it wouldn’t have the same feel or atmosphere to it. Your pacing is just right and your chapter endings are good and strong.
The dialogue is worth noting as well. There is a difference in how the diffident JJ speaks as compared to, say, Roberto, or even Jerry. I didn’t find any character’s speech to be stilted or unbelievable, and no one went on and on to the point of boredom.
Speaking of boredom, I didn’t find any places in this story where I was impatient to get to another part because of boredom. Everything held my interest. Pat emphasized motive when digging for the truth in what happened to Brett and I realize that you’ve given your main characters plenty of motivation, and this is what moves the story steadily forward. Motivation not only to solve a murder, but for other life challenges such as Pat coming to terms with her disabilities, or John’s determination to keep her as safe as he can without quenching her spirit, etc.
There were certain things I found so touching. JJ’s shell collection that ended up coming from Billy, who was alive after all. Pat’s realization that if her family had been more patient maybe they wouldn’t have lost two of their own.
Some things were surprising and troubling, for instance Jerry’s penchant for grudge holding, and using things against others in order to get something he wants. I liked that you gave him these character flaws, but initially they were a surprise. I don’t know what the mystery is between him and Pat. I was hoping to find out, but I’m still in the dark. Likewise, I don’t know what it is that her brother did for her so many years ago. These are things that have me so curious. I have to say that, unless you plan on a sequel where some of these mysteries will unfold, you might want to rethink including them in this story. The secret with Jerry is mentioned more than once, which gives it enough importance that your reader would want to know what that something is.
I really can’t think of any way that this story could be improved (except what I just mentioned about the secrets). I know you were concerned with the pacing, but as I mentioned earlier I think it’s right for this story. Each novel has a natural flow of its own, and I really do think you hit the nail on the head for this one.
This is a novel full of characters I won’t soon forget. The reason I was able to finish the beta read much sooner than we’d agreed on is that I really couldn’t put the story down once I’d started!
I hope you will keep me posted on when this gets published, and do consider me for future beta readings as I am keen to read anything you write.