MINI-REVIEW: Hank Phillippi Ryan’s WHAT YOU SEE – Isn’t Always What You Get

What_You_SeeMiss Bates read Phillippi Ryan for the first time, having noted time and again Phillippi Ryan’s name on the Agatha Awards nominee or winner lists. Phillippi Ryan’s murder-mystery-thriller-police-procedural narrative structure brings a wheel’s hub and spokes to mind. The novel opens, most dramatically, with a back-stabbing murder in the midst of a hot, tourist-laden June day in Boston’s Curley Park. This central incident radiates outwardly to a number of characters and situations, which come together in a masterful dénouement. The Curley Park murder scene draws hero and heroine, Jake Brogan, BPD detective, and Jane Ryland, unemployed journalist and Jake’s secret-lover. Jane freelances for a local TV station, working to resurrect her defunct career. A student-photographer claiming to have pics of the murder waylays Jane. Jake and DeLuca, his partner, run into an alley to discover a security expert wrestling the perp to the ground. Jane and her new photographer-friend follow. The scene is chaotic; neither Jane, representing the media, nor Jake and his partner, representing law enforcement, can tell the crime’s why or who. Meanwhile, in the mayor’s offices above Curley Park, teen-age Tenley Siskel, whose mom, Catherine, Mayor Holbrooke’s chief of staff, got her a job working the security video, may or may not have recorded the murder. Moreover, Jane responds to a call from her sister Melissa who’s frantic with worry over the disappearance of her nine-year-old step-daughter-to-be, Grace.

Miss Bates enjoyed What You See because of the way Phillippi Ryan wove the suspense’s convoluted narrative threads. MissB did grow tired with the length it took to bring them together. But what truly kept her reading was Phillippi Ryan’s personable detecting pair, Jake and Jane, and the compelling theme of the nature of perception. The novel’s opening line, “Somebody saw something. And most of them took pictures of it,” echoes the police detective’s new reality since the camera-phone’s advent. Miss Bates loved how smart Jake was, smart enough to know that access to a plethora of pics wouldn’t necessarily bring him closer to the crime’s resolution. On the contrary, suggests Phillippi Ryan, the more and better footage and images we have, the further we are from the truth, with their angles and perspectives, with the conflation of viewer and viewed. Our reality’s fragmented nature is the skewed and multi-faceted beast of subjectivity. Jake’s detecting job is like a kaleidoscope. He has to twist and turn, looking at every angle and possible configuration, to form a complete picture. What Miss Bates loved is that a good man, an honest, feeling person, uses his intelligence and skill to bring closure, not myriad cameras but a person reasoning and intuiting his way to the truth.

What of Jane? Like Jake, she sees people at their worst, when they’re hiding, committing wrong, or caught in them. If Jake serves justice, then Jane’s responsibility is to truth, to the public’s right to know. Jane’s thoughts when she arrives on the scene are about the shifting nature of an event, dependent on perspective and subjectivity. She realizes the importance of the news’ expediency and, therefore, its vulnerability to error: “Her job was to report what she saw, what she heard, what she could discover. An odd career choice, really, to be the eyes and ears of the public. Observer, always, never a participant. And because it was “news,” she had to do it quickly as she could. A constant series of assessments, decisions, choices. Perceptions. So much of reality wasn’t what it seemed at first glance.” Jake and Jane are joined by the necessity of being objective and dispassionate, while never losing sight of their humanity. Like Jake, Jane maintains a balance between caring and not losing objectivity. In the confusion of unraveling the truth, assembling the puzzle pieces, selecting and categorizing players and played, discerning innocent from guilty, and never losing sight of the possibility, nay the certainty, of “getting it wrong,” Jake and Jane reach justice and truth.

But Miss Bates, what of the romance? Well, there ain’t much of it. But what there is, is touching and tender. Primarily, Jane and Jake are “of their professions,” except when Jane is caught up in her sister’s drama. That too is an interesting narrative twist, as Jane finds herself a participant instead of the “observer” she remarked above. Phillipi Ryan’s thriller-pacing doesn’t allow for much romance development, but the romantic moments in the clock’s frantic race to solving a multitude of possible crimes make for lovely little narrative oases. A squeeze of a shoulder, a smile, eyes meeting – and best of all, Jake’s mouthing or whispering to Jane, “love you,” and Jane’s response “love you too”. Reading What You See, Miss Bates recognized why Phillippi Ryan makes the Agatha nominees list every year. With Miss Austen, she says of Phillipi Ryan’s novel, here is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Hank Phillippi Ryan’s What You See is published by Forge Books. It was released on October 27th, 2015, and is available in hardcover and e-book at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to Forge Books for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.