For a number of years now, Jennifer Hillier has been writing a varied collection of excellent crime novels that have gained her a loyal following of fans and modest critical acclaim, but she is hardly a household name. On June 12, 2018, that is going to change. The release of Jar of Hearts is poised to hit the crime fiction world like an epic fireworks display and the resulting seismic reverberations will be felt for years to come.
While Jar of Hearts features a serial killer, it is not a serial killer novel. While it has elements of deep investigation, it’s not a police procedural. And while it has a love story at the core, it is by no means a romance. Encompassing elements of all of those things and more, this novel finds a way to be something wholly original and yet completely accessible. Jar of Hearts is pure, unadulterated suspense, but even that does not accurately describe the unique power contained within this story. If Shakespeare were alive and writing psychological suspense novels today, his output would look very similar to Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts. This book is an epic tragedy for the modern age; and just as in the Elizabethan era, the masses shall flock to it in droves.
Each sections of Jar of Hearts is named for one of the five stages of grief, so readers know right from the start that this is not going to be a happy-go-lucky tale. So effective is the beginning of this novel that Part One: Denial, which runs about fifty pages, could stand on its own as an effective – albeit unresolved – novella. Readers are introduced to Georgina Shaw (or Geo, as she prefers to be addressed) as she is sentenced to the Hazelwood Correctional Institute due to her participation in the death of her best friend while back in high school. The rest of this section fits nicely on the shelf between Oz and Prisoner: Cell Block H, another in a long tradition of fictional depictions of prison life. Interspersed here are the first glimpses of that past incident and as Geo makes very clear to the reader, no one knows the whole truth regarding this crime, even after this trial.
The second section, Part Two: Anger, focuses on Kaiser Brody, another of Geo’s friends from high school, who happens to now be a police detective. Readers quickly discover that five years have passed and Geo is about to be released from prison. Kaiser is on the trail of Calvin James, a. k. a. the Sweetbay Strangler, Geo’s boyfriend back in those high school days and the man with whom she was accused of conspiring in relation to the death of Angela Wong. It seems that at some stage, Calvin escaped prison and Kaiser is not sure that Geo doesn’t know more about the fugitive than she is telling.
By the time Parts Three: Bargaining and Four: Depression recount the discovery of new bodies, readers will have long been invested in the novel’s outcome. So well crafted is this book, that in retrospect, it simply could not have been written in any other way – and I dare say, by any other writer. The transitions between present day and past events is seamless and methodical. With each new revelation, readers are led down another path – some lead to answers, while others are dead-ends (or are they?)
Part Five: Acceptance brings about a conclusion that is equal parts surprising and inevitable. All the evidence readers need is there – almost from the beginning – but Jennifer Hillier has made the journey getting there so gripping that the crimes almost become an after-thought until this skilled writer places everyone square in the face of a horrific situation and the reader is left breathless.
Jar of Hearts also proves that diversity in the crime genre is not about crafting stories where that diversity is the central plot point, but rather stories where all characters simply reflect the variety that exists in our real world. Geo’s mixed-race heritage and the diversity of much of the supporting cast are simply a fact of life, not some didactic plot point aimed at educating the reader towards tolerance.
Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts should be on every Best Of list for the year – it is certainly at the top of mine. Don’t miss the book everyone will be talking about this summer.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the publisher. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.