Friday, June 26, 2009

Change the locks!

Nancy Werlin gives such a sense of place to her novel, The Killer's Cousin, that -- despite its now-dated references, I truly felt like I was there, in Cambridge, with the creepy cousin living downstairs. Since I listened to it, though, I should probably give some credit to Nick Podehl, the narrator. The book was published in 1998, and here's the original cover (the one from our catalog's Syndetics). Much better is the current cover, with the bathtub image.

David Yaffe has just been acquitted of the murder of his girlfriend in a sensational trial in Baltimore. His parents have sent him to live with his mother's brother and his wife and daughter in Cambridge in order to complete his senior year. He moves into the family's upstairs "mother-in-law" apartment, which he has to access by walking through the Shaughnessy's own living quarters. The previous occupant of the apartment was their elder daughter, Kathy, who committed suicide in the bathtub four years earlier.

David senses right away that things aren't right in the Shaughnessy household. His aunt and uncle converse through their 11-year-old daughter, Lily. Lily doesn't seem to like David at all, and even tells him that she should be living in the upstairs apartment not him. At Thanksgiving, David effects a kind of reconciliation between his aunt and uncle, and Lily turns evil. She regularly enters his apartment and systematically destroys his belongings. David discovers her listening to her parents' lovemaking, and she spies on him kissing the college student who lives downstairs. As a "fellow" killer, David senses that Lily had something to do with her sister's suicide, and he urges her parents to get her some help. But they can't hear that.

David is the perfect victim for Lily's psychological terrorism. Even though he hadn't meant to kill his girlfriend, he lives with the knowledge that his anger led to her death. And as Lily is breaking David, this novel is creepy and suspenseful. I know I was into the story because I kept mentally shouting at David: "Change the locks!" But, satisfyingly, David never loses his humanity. His ultimate concern is for Lily and her mental health, and he quite heroically sacrifices himself for her.

Nick Podehl, heard a few weeks ago in Discordia, is so very good here. There are only a few male readers who really sound like teenagers, and Podehl is one of them. I can hear David's guilt and lack of confidence in his voice, as well as that teenage know-it-allness. He reads quietly, but he can burst out when the dialog calls for it. He doesn't dramatically distinguish between characters in his reading, but he paces the dialog extremely well, so following it is no problem. A reader could have gone over the top with disturbed young Lily, and Podehl vocally creates her character without histrionics. He even has to impersonate a ghost occasionally, and that comes off sounding legitimate as well. It was a compelling listen.

I did find that listening to the many dated references occasionally took me out of the story (more so than the Werlin title I listened to last month). No cell phone, no iPod = no current teenager. But, of course, teens are smart enough to overlook this stuff and I can too. I will confess I had never heard of the Star (now Shaw's) Market "loyalty" card swapping that David and his friends engage in. Now it looks like it's done online and not in person. Ah, that's the difference between 1998 and 2009.

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