Published on December 16th, 2020 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Saving Grace – D.M. Barr
DM Barr is a writer with a few books and a number of awards under her belt. Her book Saving Grace is a psychological thriller.
Murder mysteries are a genre that has always been popular, but one needs to dig deeper, as they also can be broken down into subgenres: there’s the Noir/hard-bitten detective who at some point will mention the dirty city; there’s more of a police procedural, like those written by Sue Grafton; and then there is the category that Saving Grace could be included.
This falls more in line with the Agatha Christie / Murder She Wrote / Monk kind of almost artistic straightforwardness that makes it a bit more palpable for the average reader. That does not mean there won’t be blood and murder, it is just a stylistic choice that I personally enjoy. It’s certainly not a comedy, but it is a lighter shade of dark. Just from the name/word pun of the title, you know this is going to be a fun ride.
For those who don’t know, DM Barr is a celebrated writer with a few books under her belt now, and quite a number of awards. Most reviewers have referred to Saving Grace as a psychological thriller, and rightfully so. The central and titular character is a woman with a history of paranoia, and so now in her middle age, living with her husband and two teenaged sons, she has spent a large amount of her time under the thumb of numerous medications that keep her less than clear-headed. But she is going to change that by cold turkey-ing the drugs and go on with her life.
This leads to a nice line of “what is real and what is imagined?” She’s becoming more convinced by things that may or may not be true; she is living in a world of delusional circumstantial evidence fed by mental strain and a lack of medicines, and the prospect of being gaslit. But as a woman of a certain age, Grace indicates in the novel, “Life without meds overflowed with possibility” (p. 7).
It doesn’t help that between Grace’s passive-aggressive husband Eliot’s condescending and her two young teen sons’ lack of respect, she is living in a world of toxic masculinity, seeing her for what she can give them, rather than helping in a substantial way.
Grace is well read, as her only outlet for cathartic emotion, and Barr nicely uses characters of other novels to have her express how she is feeling, such as “She felt as trapped as Henri Charrière in Papillon, doomed forever to imprisonment on Devil’s Island. Except unlike him, she had no ally to help her escape” (p. 17). Barr never talks down to the audience, using language that is lush and languid, occasionally scattered with words like prophylactic homicide and uxoricidal (look it up; I did).
There are also quite an engaging ancillary cast of characters, such as her daddy, Barrington, who is a mean, nasty and elderly tycoon who likes to belittle and name-call, and his mistress Caprice, who is more than a decade less Grace’s age. A third wheel in the relationships between Grace and Eliot, and also Grace and Barrington, is Grace’s psychologist, Dr. Emma Leighmann, who has been treating her since she was a child. It’s debateable whose best interest she has in mind, since Barrington’s long fingers have a financial hold on her. Another is Sheryl, Eliot’s over-ambitious secretary, willing to do what it takes to make her boss rise in the ranks, planning that he will take her with him, be it in the office or, as Grace fears, to replace her. Then there’s the toxicologist Grace befriends, Tom Druthers. Of course the more the secondary characters, the better both the possible body count and, arguably even more importantly, the red herrings.
Two other individuals are the sister and brother team of Andrea and Hack. She’s a mystery writer who takes Grace under her wing, and he’s a late-teen gonif due to his gambling habit. The two of them are central to the story, though they are not in it, generally, until a third of the novel. Their presence is due to be profound.
The book is thankfully not formulaic, beginning with the murder, and then most of the rest are the events leading up to the moment of execution, as it were. There are also lots of surprises along the way. There is also some serious side commentary on the issues of LGBTQI, conversion therapy, and homeless teens that are noteworthy being important lynchpins in the story without anywhere near being preachy.
A few interjections are also dispersed throughout about the political climate, not really taking a left/right side, but noting the cultural angst, such as one character, an aspiring writer, stating, “I write … Ultra-Cozies… They’re short mysteries with only two or three characters, take place in one location, and have very little action. … They’re for readers so traumatized by the current political climate, they can’t tolerate too much drama” (p. 70). As dire as the basic storyline is, there is levity here and there, such as one aspiring writer character describing her genre: “It’s Yoga romance. My latest, Chakra Full of Nuts, hit number one in the category last week. It’s about two Yogis who fall in love at a cashew farm” (p. 70). Or when Barr, as narrator, states about a tense moment: “The room grew as silent as the second ‘n’ in ‘condemn’” (p. 72).
The reason for the mention of writers, Grace decides to write a mystery novel, Salvaging Hope, using her life as the paradigm, hereby pre-emptively securing her safety as her fears are publicly circulated. A pretty brazen yet cool idea for a Marshall McLuhan-esque hot medium; or a one character describes it, “Publishing rather than perishing” (p. 92).
While the body count is not huge, its more realistic number is still relatively lively (pun intended), and the story builds and then explodes in the final third of the book when time catches up to the prologue, and then there are enough people introduced in Team Grace’s to try to figure out the answer.
Chapters are relatively short at a few pages each, making them easier to digest, but considering the storyline, it is harder to put the damn thing down. That speaks to the quality of the story. While I have not yet read Barr’s other books, Expired Listings (2016) and Slashing Mona Lisa (2018), there is a lot of meta text in here. For example, Barr and Grace are around the same age and both are writers of lighter stuff until the novels came. Barr shows she’s not beyond using the “write what you know” maxim. All for the better of her readers, I must add.
How did this book make me feel, overall? As Druthers put it, “…happier than a mosquito on the first day of summer” (p. 189).
Written by DM Barr
Black Rose Writing (Texas)