Sacred Trust by Meg O’Brien is not a romance novel. It is a novel of suspense in which a woman discovers that the peaceful world she thinks she lives in is filled with violence and hatred. This is not the sort of thing I usually read and that probably influenced my review, but I’ve tried to give the book the benefit of the doubt.
Marti Bright was a famous photojournalist who brought the public’s attention to hunger and homelessness around the world. Marti’s best friend, Abby Northrup, is horrified when Marti’s body is found near Abby’s home. Marti was flogged and then crucified, the words “I lied” painted on her chest. Abby herself becomes a suspect when the police find that Marti managed to write Abby’s name in the dirt before she died.
This novel is indeed suspenseful, for O’Brien immerses the reader in a truly paranoid world, one in which everyone has a deadly secret and no one is to be trusted. The opening chapters of the book give us, with visceral realism, the graphic details of Marti’s death. I don’t think I have an unusually weak stomach, but crucifixion is both physically horrific and emotionally loaded. I’m not likely to forget these images any time soon.
I did not enjoy my visit to this world, and I don’t think that Sacred Trust is a very effective thriller. For one thing, Marti is murdered in the very beginning of the book, and posthumous accounts of her saintliness did not succeed in engaging my interest in her. Abby is a cynical, bitter woman. Her reactions to the things happening around her oscillate between tearful disbelief that anyone could be so cruel, and nasty ingratitude towards those who are kind. In spite of her ordeal, I was unable to sympathize with her.
Much of my problem with Abby, I think, is that she is the first-person narrator. It takes a very skilled writer to give us a first-person narrator who is insecure yet sympathetic (Dick Francis does it admirably). Telling the story from Abby’s point of view presents us with all of Abby’s self-doubt, regret, and inward torment, without effectively showing us why anyone would like her. This is further aggravated by the author’s choice to fix the narration in the present tense, which was probably supposed to make events more immediate, but which has the effect of making Abby’s inner dialogue stilted and annoying.
Sacred Trust opening chapter is definitely a grabber, and you probably won’t guess the killer. That’s because O’Brien gives us absolutely zero evidence against the person who turns out to be the villain. She does give us lots of evidence that turns out to be an unlikely farrago of red herrings. After I had turned the last page of this novel I felt unsatisfied and rather unclean.
I like those old mysteries, the ones with time-tables and locked rooms, in which the reader is given all the evidence she needs to figure out the crime, and every last clue is accounted for by the end. I like the complex elegance of John LeCarre’s thrillers, or the emotional insight of Dick Francis’. Messy, sprawling, graphically violent thrillers have never been my style. If you like this sort of thing, you might enjoy Sacred Trust more than I.
I just hope I can get the image of Marti Bright’s death out of my head soon.