Up to this point, most of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s novels have centered on journalists whether they are newspaper writers, television reporters, or true crime documenters. With The Murder List, her second stand-alone novel of suspense, Ryan takes a step away from that arena to provide readers with her best novel to date.
Never one to take the easy path, Hank Phillippi Ryan allows The Murder List to morph and change style to reflect the needs of the narrative. At various points it reads like a novel of psychological warfare, or a legal thriller, or a whodunit, or a procedural, or even domestic suspense. But under the control of this skilled author, through all of these permutations, it always remains a singular work, hyper-focused on three characters, and is nothing short of spellbinding.
Those three characters are law student Rachel North, her husband – Jack Kirkland, and her boss – Martha Gardiner. Both Jack and Martha are lawyers with a history of being at odds on opposite sides within the courtroom. Rachel plans to join her husband’s practice, but cannot pass up the opportunity to intern under Martha’s tutelage while finishing her studies. It is this dynamic that sits like a powder keg at the core of The Murder List.
Hank Phillippi Ryan packs her story with legal elements. There are at least three significant court cases that play a role in this novel’s impressive structure. Detailing each of these legal proceedings also requires the juggling of multiple timelines and point of view shifts to each of the three core individuals. One might think this would become convoluted and unwieldy, but that is not so. By organizing the plot under four distinct sections – each with its own internal, logical structure – Hank Phillippi Ryan holds the reader’s hand as she leads them through this maze of incidents, revelations, and recriminations. Secrets abound and this is an author who knows just when to unleash their power onto unsuspecting readers to elicit maximum effect.
The behind the scenes glimpse of the legal process is fascinating. In particular, a section dealing with jury deliberations contains more tension than is often found in some entire novels. Hank Phillippi Ryan does not forgo the journalistic world completely; there is a secondary character – reporter Clea Rourke – who not only plays a pivotal role, but also displays as much depth as the main characters. This is a trend for the “minor” characters throughout, actually. Every individual serves a purpose and is rightly allowed the same level of depth, motivation, and development as Rachel, Jack, and Martha.
There are a couple of reveals readers should see coming, but because the novel reads so compulsively, most won’t even stop to breathe much less attempt to forecast future developments. The fact that these elements are obvious in retrospect says nothing negative about the plotting, but rather highlights how organic the novel’s course actually is. This novel’s surprise ending is actually inevitable from the start.
Hank Phillippi Ryan has made a tradition of using titles that have multiple meanings and The Murder List is no exception. The most obvious meaning of this phrase refers to the list of pro-bono defense attorneys who will take on destitute clients in need, but as readers will discover, there are other more sinister interpretations of this titular phrase by the time the novel reaches its conclusion.
Readers, move this one to the top of your reading pile. Hank Phillippi Ryan’s The Murder List is another step forward for an author who never fails to deliver.
Disclaimer: A print galley of this title was provided to BOLO Books by the author. No review was promised and the above is an unbiased review of the novel.