by Rachel Hawkins
St. Martin’s Press, 2022
Genre: Murder mystery
Reviewed by Cheryl Carpenter
With the simple declaration “Houses remember,” Rachel Hawkins sets the mood for her latest novel, The Villa. Although the book jacket alludes to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as one possible influence, I couldn’t help drawing a comparison to Poe’s “House of Usher” or, more particularly, to several Henry James novels in which houses are personified. No Turn of the Screw apparitions are on display in The Villa, but Em McCrae, the protagonist, has some traits in common with James’s character, Daisy Miller, and the Villa Aestas near Orvieto, Italy, is a house that not only remembers, but also keeps secrets.
Em McCrae and Chess Chandler first met in a fourth-grade classroom in Asheville, North Carolina, and their friendship continued through college, but as adults they are too busy to hang out, and their relationship has languished. Both women are ambitious writers; Em is the author of a series of “cozies,” polite garden party murder mysteries featuring a character named Petal Bloom, and Chess writes edgy self-help books. Em has married Matt Sheridan, an accountant, and enjoyed modest success from her publications. For the past year, however, she has been ill and in a creative slump. Doctors can find nothing wrong with her and suggest that she may simply be experiencing the effects of stress. Six months ago, after seven years of marriage, Matt left her. Chess, meanwhile, is riding a crest of popularity and skyrocketing sales of Your Best Self and You Got This! When Chess has a promotional stop in Asheville, she and Em get together for lunch, but the conversation is awkward for Em. The next day Chess texts Em with a “crazy thought.” She invites Em along for a summer work-holiday at an Italian villa. The name of the villa and nearby town seem familiar to Em, and, after a quick internet search, she calls Chess to tell her that the Villa Aestas, as lovely as it looks, was once a famous “murder house.” Laughing dismissively, Chess notes that the crime occurred in 1974 —ages ago! Em is desperate to overcome her writer’s block (she’s missed a deadline, and her extension is ticking), so, hoping to put Matt’s abandonment out of her mind, to rekindle her old relationship with Chess, and to get back to work, she packs her bags.
Tensions have always been part of the Em–Chess friendship, but Hawkins gradually increases the pressure with unfolding subplots and psychological intrigues. The reader must determine whether Em is overly sensitive and jealous or whether Chess is condescending and manipulative. The balance of light and dark is a delicate one, and suspense builds as Em, neglecting the work she has come to the villa to do, develops a fascination with the events of 1974 that resulted in a best-selling horror novel, an iconic record album, and a brutal murder. This is no cozy, predictable mystery; it’s investigative journalism that could lead to a serious book. The more clues Em uncovers, the more the plots of the past converge with the throbbing drama of the present. (Some of the clues are in the now famous ’74 horror novel she finds next to a copy of The Portrait of a Lady—by Henry James—on a bookshelf in the villa).
None of the characters who were present at the villa that long ago summer ever gave interviews or discussed the grisly murder after the trial, but the two who produced significant artistic works while they were there were women, stepsisters, who had been invited along as support for the men, a past-his-prime rock star who had rented the place and a rising young musician. The irony is thick.
Rachel Hawkins doesn’t skimp on the traditional elements of the thriller: gloom, dread, storms, candlelight, mirrors, dim hallways, hidden motives, eerie details, suspicion, doubt, betrayal, fear—all contained in a house that is a presence. The house may have given up some of its secrets, but it watches, waits, and remembers, and so will the reader —with a shudder.
A native of Mississippi, Cheryl Carpenter has lived in Decatur, Alabama since 1987. She is a retired English teacher.