– Post by Molly
Lori Rader-Day burst onto the literary detective novel scene last year with her murder-in-academia debut, The Black Hour. I could tell from the first paragraph that Lori Rader-Day is not just a good writer – she has a perfect handle on noir style, and understands how to marry the toughness of the traditional private eye with the deep psychological insights of, well, a mature female protagonist.
What’s more, she taps into many of the themes prevalent in the wave of recently published domestic thrillers made possible by Gillian Flynn’s runaway success with Gone Girl. The Black Hour takes on class, sex, female community versus competition, and that most controversial of all academia subjects, funding, for a gleeful send-off of modern academic institutions, culminating in a thrilling fight sequence during the college setting’s annual regatta.
Little Pretty Things, her recently released second novel, takes on a different setting, but many of the same themes. Maddy and Juliet, both former cross-country stars, spent high school as the best of frenemies, and then drifted apart after school. When Maddy shows up at the dingy motel where Juliet splits her time between cleaning and bartending, just in time for their ten year high school reunion, Juliet feels only envy for Maddy’s escape from their small, impoverished town. Plus, she still has a chip on her shoulder from a high school track career spent always getting second place to Maddy’s first.
Juliet and Maddy don’t get much of a chance to work things out, for Maddy is found murdered the day after her arrival in town. Juliet sets out to discover the culprit and clear her own name of suspicion, delving into their complex relationship as she seeks out Maddy’s secrets from a decade before. Through her investigation, Juliet gains new appreciation for all those things she thought she never had, including support from her family and her friendship with Maddy. She even discovers a hidden talent for coaching, and begins to appreciate that Maddy’s exceptional talents, on and off the field, increased Maddy’s vulnerability, while Juliet gained protection and perspective from her own mediocrity.
In Lori Rader-Day’s novels, men are ancillary. They exist, and they play important roles, but a reader is never in doubt – these are supporting roles. Strong female characters pervade Rader-Day’s work, and it’s hard to find a chapter in her work that doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. Her female characters have names. They are powerful. They talk to each other about many subjects, and they don’t just talk – they act. They are also vulnerable and problematic. Even Rader-Day’s protagonists are far from deified – they make plenty of mistakes, have selfish motivations, and are blinded, at least at first, to the crimes of those they love. I’m a huge fan of tough prose, strong women, and a moody atmosphere, and Lori Rader-Day’s novels make the cut.
Little Pretty Things reads rather like a combination of Grosse Pointe Blank and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Or like a re-write of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion where Romy gets murdered in the first five minutes and Michele forgets all about blue binder guy and spends the whole movie solving Romy’s murder while reexamining every facet of her and Romy’s life. Readers of Megan Abbott, Tana French, Mette Ivie Harrison, and Jamie Mason should get plenty of enjoyment out of Lori Rader-Day’s work, but there’s a limit to any exact comparison – Lori Rader-Day’s got a style and sensibility all her own. But don’t take my word for it – thanks to Seventh Street Books and their affordable paperback releases, you can find out for yourself.
You can find copies of Little Pretty Things on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.