In Her Shadow
Have you ever asked yourself if the plot of the classic Daphne DuMaurier novel Rebecca would work if the story was set in modern times? That’s the question author Kristin Miller tries to answer in the novel In Her Shadow.
We meet Colleen Roper as she is about to take her first step into her new home. Up until then, she and her lover Michael Harris had their assignations in her small apartment. As her boss and a man who has only been parted from his wife for six months, he has been anxious to keep their affair extremely quiet, especially since his liaison with Colleen and her subsequent pregnancy all occur within a month of his marital split.
Colleen is a bit disconcerted when she first enters the house. She knows Michael is wealthy but his huge estate is grandiose enough to have a name, Ravenwood. Rather than being delighted at her good fortune, however, Colleen quickly becomes uncomfortable with the fact that the house is suffused with the memory of Michael’s wife, Joanna. She is served Joanna’s favorite dishes by the cook, warned away from Joanna’s rooms by both the housekeeper and Michael, and is advised over and over of the schedules and patterns that must be maintained because Joanna set them up. Colleen may be Michael’s mistress but it is clear she will never be mistress of Ravenwood.
Within a week of her arrival another problem arises. A woman walking a couple of dogs loses her hold on a leash and the newly liberated pooch quickly finds human remains in a shallow grave not far from Ravenwood. When the police come to investigate, they quickly learn that strange comings and goings have occurred at the house. Specifically, Mrs. Harris has gone and Mr. Harris has brought a very pregnant young stranger into the home. Where, they ask, did Joanna go? It doesn’t take long to discover that she is in fact missing and not staying with her sister as Michael claims. Needless to say, suspicion falls on Michael as the detectives try to determine what happened to his absent – quickly confirmed dead – wife.
The blurb for this novel advises us that, “Inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, In Her Shadow is the chilling story of one woman’s desperate desire to be loved and the ghosts that threaten to get in her way.” I’m not sure it was wise for the publisher to openly invite comparisons to that classic story. To begin, Ravenwood is no isolated, atmospheric Manderley. There is nothing spooky or chilling about this “mansion plucked from Luxury Living magazine” set in an upscale neighborhood in a posh village south of San Francisco, with breathtaking vistas of the ocean available through the windows and contemporary American neighbors strolling the streets and basking in their privilege.
But more importantly, Colleen is no ingénue, no innocent young girl who falls in love with a near stranger only to discover herself trapped in a dangerous situation and married to a man who may very well be a murderer. While I was sincerely concerned for the safety of the second Mrs. DeWinter, I had few fears for Colleen, who could easily have left any uncomfortable position she found herself in by calling for an Uber. I also couldn’t help but feel Colleen was a gold digger – who, in this modern age, gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby when she is with a married man whom she has only been dating a month? Why would you want that sort of tie to someone you barely know? I also believed almost immediately that she was a liar. She pretended she couldn’t have been aware of how much money Michael had but I worked as a secretary many years ago to an executive officer of an oil company. I might not have known his exact bank balance but it was obvious just how much money he had, so I struggled to believe that Colleen, secretary to the owner of a clearly successful, top tier financial company, wouldn’t have been aware of Michael’s wealth. Numerous statements she made regarding her own humble background mixed with her awareness of how expensive everything around her was, convinced me she was deeply desirous of this opportunity to be upwardly mobile.
Most gothic novels are told in first person singular but Ms. Miller employs several first person points of view to tell her tale, among them Michael’s, and some of the poorest writing revolves around his character. A gothic hero – or even one in a simple mystery – needs to be at least mildly threatening, with an air of dangerous foreboding about him. That isn’t the case here. He’s a tad unsavory – he has, after all, hooked up with his secretary a matter of days after receiving a text message purportedly ending his marriage. But he is never frightening. He is however, rather dim. He’s never suspicious of the fact that his wife left him via text and took few, if any, personal possessions when she walked away from a marriage worth millions, something not in the least in keeping with her character. He also never questions why she doesn’t contact him – about a divorce, to ask for money, to tell him what her plans for the future are. Finally, we are to believe that he buried the body within walking distance of his own home. All of this was so over the top foolish that I never once believed he was guilty. No one that stupid could own run a company successfully, and literally everything pointing toward his culpability was laughably dumb behavior. This particular red herring felt like it wasn’t just painted crimson but covered in scarlet glitter and wreathed with cardinal colored blinking Christmas lights.
Lacking the ingénue heroine, sinister hero and eerie house, the sense of menace In Her Shadow hoped to convey never coalesced. The author does try to throw several twists in at the end but I was never invested enough in the tale to find the clues leading to them intriguing, nor did I find the denouement shocking. I already disliked that character enough to believe anything of them and I had ferreted out their motive in the first few chapters of the book. Given the fiercely competitive nature of the thriller market and the number of outstanding writers in the genre, I can’t recommend this tale.