The One I Left Behind
By: Jennifer McMahon
Published date: January 2013
Overall Rating: 3 out of 5
What is it about the winter holiday season that makes me want to escape in a murder mystery? Could it be a little escapist fantasy caused by visiting relatives? (Spoiler: It’s 100% the visiting relatives.) In any case, I found myself looking for a good story of murder and mayhem earlier this month, and stumbled across Jennifer McMahon almost completely by accident. I’m really glad that I did!
The One I Left Behind is the story of a Reggie, a woman who finds herself looking back on her childhood when her mother suddenly and unexpectedly reappears in her life after more than twenty years. When Reggie was a teenager, her mother, Vera, was the final target of a serial killer stalking women of their small town. After Vera’s hand was delivered to the police station, she was presumed dead and the serial killer finally went dormant. With her reappearance, Reggie finds herself investigating the original crime and suspecting those closest to her of terrible crimes.
McMahon sets up this book fantastically, simultaneously laying out the events of the summer Vera first went missing (in 1985) and the events of the current day. She is so skilled in slowly letting information seep through in both timelines that I was taken completely by surprise by some of the twists of the story. At the same time, since both stories are filtered through Reggie’s eyes, we are given a glimpse at how a story can be shaped by its teller (and also how Reggie herself grows up clearly changed by the trauma of her youth). The storytelling in this book is consistently gripping, but it does have some faults.
The biggest issue I found with this book was that there are a number of plot ideas that are introduced, but never really followed up one. A big one of these is Tara, a childhood friend of Reggie’s who reappears in her life with little explanation of what brought her there. Little explanation really at all for what happened to her in the 25 years since they’d last met, and since she ends up playing an important role in both timelines, this is a little confusing. It feels like McMahon needed a warm body in the present, so she’s hauled back in, but without an attention paid to how or why. Other loose plot points exist as well, and none are so bad as to really hurt the book substantially, but if fully realized could certainly have helped make it feel more cohesive.
Despite that, I still really enjoyed this book. Funny enough, it wasn’t at all what I was initially looking for. I wanted a completely pulpy, a little bit trashy, mystery to entertain me around the bustle of the holidays. This book, while very entertaining, is not at all that; the writing is surprisingly beautiful in places and much more literary than I had expected. In addition to the surface plot of a killer and his victims and how that killer might be found and brought to justice, the book covers so many universal ideas. There are investigations of relationships, whether romantic, familial, friendly, or unrequited, and how they shape us and our decisions (and even how those relationships that are long over can cause us to make bad decisions in our daily lives). There is a hard look at what homecoming means when “home” is a place that isn’t wholly positive. There is facing down horrible things you did when you were younger from a position of the older and wiser.
I recommend this book for anyone who wants a decent, meaty mystery (although perhaps not so much for those with matricidal fantasies brought on by holiday stress). The writing is fast-paced and interesting, and the overall plot is new and unexpected. She’s got a decent catalog of other works as well, so I’d love to hear any further recommendations!