Alert: I’m a huge Michael Robotham fan. His standalone book Life or Death was up for the 2016 Best Novel Edgar. It didn’t win, and I ranked it fourth, right behind the actual winner, Lori Roy’s Let Me Die in His Footsteps.
He has a very popular series featuring psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, nine books at last counting. I met the good doctor in 2012 and blogged about him while on a cruise. Joe often works with the good but morally ambiguous Detective Vincent Ruiz, is still in love with his estranged wife, Julianne, and has Parkinson’s disease which bothers him more as the series progresses. It’s a good series, and two of the books won the Ned Kelly Award for Australia’s Best Crime novel. Still, the time was ripe for a new protagonist, and Robotham doesn’t disappoint.
Good Girl, Bad Girl is the Edgar-nominated first book in a new series featuring Cyrus Haven. Cyrus is also a psychologist, but has a more dramatic backstory; while tween Cyrus cruised past his crush’s house on his bike, his older brother was murdering their parents and twin sisters. Adult Cyrus is tattooed, lifts weights and runs to burn off excess psychic energy, eschews a cell phone in favor of a pager, and maintains a loving relationship with Lenny Pavel, the female cop – now a Chief Inspector – who questioned and comforted him after he found his family’s bodies.
That enduring Lenny connection is what gets Cyrus pulled in when a dog walker finds the body of young figure skater Jodi Sheehan, bludgeoned and sexually assaulted. Although the physical forensics of detection are critical, Cyrus specializes in the psychological underpinnings of crime. Throughout Good Girl, Bad Girl, Cyrus picks at the threads of Jodi’s life until he sees beyond the perfect athlete, daughter and sister to see the flawed but loving human she truly was. In doing so, Cyrus also wades through an abundance of murder suspects. In lesser hands, the truths that Robotham has Cyrus uncover could be simply red herrings — in this book, they add to the richness of the narrative. What really happened to Jodi is the result of a long-buried secret.
And it’s a connection of another kind – to the psychology community – that gets Cyrus Haven pulled in to the sad and strange case of Evie Cormac. Six years ago, Evie was discovered hiding in a rundown building with the rotting corpse of a tortured criminal and two surprisingly well-fed Alsatian dogs. Skinny and silent, the child known in the media as Angel Face, was of indeterminate age. Given a new name under a legal gag order, the child now known as Evie Cormac bounced through the foster care system, ending up in big trouble in residential care after attacking another resident with a brick.
Adam Guthrie, her psychologist there, knew that Evie was more than smart – he thought she had an unerring ability to tell when someone was lying. And here’s where Cyrus comes in – he wrote his doctoral thesis on “truth wizards.” Adam calls Cyrus in to consult, and we go on to the adventure of learning more about Evie as they interact. When Evie seeks to be emancipated so she can leave the foster care system, Cyrus is the only person who supports her, ultimately offering to become her foster parent until she reaches the date set by the judge. Little by little, we see the distrust that defines Evie begin to peel away with Cyrus… but set-backs are a given, and it’s during one of those set-backs that Evie learns some facts that ultimately help Cyrus solve Jodi Sheehan’s murder.
This book is mesmerizing. The plot is twisty but well-supported throughout. No cheating. The characters are complex, and Robotham is a master at the slow reveal. At the end of Good Girl, Bad Girl, the thoughtful reader realizes that there is no such thing. Jodi is no more 100% good than Evie is 100% bad. And vice versa. The writing is assured and can be very funny (to wit, the group therapy scene where Cyrus is the only one who knows that all of Evie’s revelations are word-for-word dialogue from popular movies). There’s a cliffhanger at the end, as we realize that the scenario of “child rescued from pedophile kidnapper” might be just one more fiction. Thank heavens that July 2020 will bring us the new Cyrus/Evie book, When She Was Good.
But how does it compare to The River? To quote your favorite British cozy writer, they’re like chalk and cheese. Both good! I see The River as a slender tale, a simpler story, although rewarding. Robotham’s book is more complex, more layered, with a lot of character and heart. But at the end of the day, I must go for Good Girl, Bad Girl for sheer enjoyment.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel