Desert Isle Keeper
Paulina Simons’ psychological mystery, Red Leaves is a tragedy with no happily ever after. A fatalistic, chilling portrayal of four supposed friends who look the other way when one of their number is found dead, the story depicts the worst of human nature and will haunt readers even after the book is finished.
At the outset, readers are introduced to four college students who appear to be best friends forever. But as the plot unfolds it becomes evident that this closeness is superficial, and they have grown distant. The first half of the book explores the relationships between each of them and is narrated by Kristina Kim, one of the most likeable and relatable characters. Dartmouth College’s star basketball player, she is about to turn twenty-one and seems to have a great life ahead of her. Yet that future is not to be, and readers connect with her through our exploration of the last three days of her life. It becomes clear she was intelligent, beautiful, fearless, and bubbly; yet, as we come to know her we understand the heartache, loss, and dark secrets that haunted her.
The other friends and the police detective charged with investigating the murder are the supporting characters. All four friends were children of privilege, passionately addicted to each other’s company. Conni Tobias is Kristina’s former roommate; the classic catty mean girl with little self-esteem, who harbors extremely jealous and resentful feelings towards Kristina.
Kristina’s boyfriend, Jim Shaw, is extremely self-centered and appears to be in a relationship just so he can say he has a girlfriend. Albert Maplethorpe is charismatic, the bad boy who is never able to tell the truth, and the one with the most secrets. Although he is Conni’s boyfriend, it’s obvious he lusts after Kristina. He becomes the outlier with long hair, tattoos, and a rebellious streak.
The only other likeable character in the story is police detective Spencer Patrick O’Malley. He had met Kristina a day before her death, and the two of them appeared to have a strong chemistry. The remarkable young woman captivated him, but unfortunately they never did have their date since he was the one to find Kristina’s naked body frozen in the snow. Tortured by her death he will not let her murder rest, and is doggedly determined to solve the case. Readers will feel Spencer’s frustration and sadness along with him as he tries to untangle the lies, half-truths, and secrets of her friends.
Albert, Conni, and Jim are unsympathetic, uncaring, dysfunctional, and do not seem to have many redeemable qualities. Although some readers might think that their personalities are unbelievable they need look no further than how some people today interact on Facebook and Twitter.
Throughout the investigation, Spencer must try to understand why these supposed best friends never reported Kristina missing. Why did they not act surprised after finding out she was dead? Were they in denial or displaying a chilling indifference? None of them are who they seem to be on the surface, and the deeper the story goes, the more layers to their true personalities are uncovered by the detective. They are more concerned about Kristina’s dog than about her, making sure it was walked, fed, and taken care of, but never questioned where Kristina had disappeared to.
The creepiness of the setting of the Long Island Sound and Dartmouth Campus reflects the psychological examination of the relationships between the friends. The vivid descriptions put readers right there, whether walking along the stony beach, or finding the body in the spooky snow, the burial ground for the black boots. The campus is small, intimate, remote, and an ominous place set in the dark woods.
The theme plays off the philosopher Aristotle’s beliefs about moral truths and destiny. How long can a secret be held and what happens when the truth does eventually come out? What affects someone’s destiny? Every one of us, every day, faces decisions, choices that most often lead to one event. Yet, if another decision were made it would lead somewhere else. In Kristina’s case not following her own intuition led to her tragic end.
This storyline could perhaps be summarized by the phrase, “with friends like this who needs enemies?” This isn’t a love triangle, but a love pentagon with each character loving or lusting after another, determined to be the one with the power and control. Although the novel does have ‘boy meets girl’, that is where it ends – we never get as far as ‘boy gets girl’. Very compelling with a good plot twist, Red Leaves explores how love can be destructive, obsessive, and fierce with deep undertones that can sometimes bring out the worst in people.
~ Elise Cooper