The Yin and Yang of Murder

It’s rare for a novel to be narrated by a murder victim. (The Lovely Bones is a notable example). For an author, it’s a hard trick to pull off (unless you’re explicit about the afterlife situation, or ghosts, or spirit mediums, all of which require quite a bit of backfilling for a crime novel). As No One Will Miss Her opens, Lizzie Ouellette, 28, of Copper Falls, Maine, is dead. Hers is the first voice we hear, as author Kat Rosenfield then switches between the first-person narration of the deceased to a third-person coverage of her murder investigation.

Copper Falls is the kind of rusted-out town one finds scattered over New England, with empty storefronts and potholed roads. The mill or factory closed decades ago, and anyone with any get-up-and-go long since got up and left. As Rosenfield describes it:

Every year, the population of Copper Falls shrank just a little bit more as people gave up, lost hope, fled south in search of easier lives—or didn’t, and died where they sat.

In No One Will Miss Her, this world of blue-collar despair collides with that of Instagram sunsets (#blessed) in the ultimate Airbnb horror story. Lizzie has rented her lakeside cottage to a rich Boston couple looking to get away from the city. The husband, Ethan, has skated his culpability for a Bernie Madoff-like scam. His younger and disappointed wife, Adrienne, spends her time promoting a perfect life on social media, despite being a pariah in real life due to her husband’s crimes.

Adrienne is an educated woman with enough motivation to start side-hustles but she lacks the financial urgency to really need to stick the landing.

There were the rich-lady start-ups, from organic perfume to a line of vegan leather handbags to astrology-based interior design, all blithely abandoned when Adrienne’s attention span ran out and she discovered, to her horror, that running a company required actual work.

Adrienne has been shielded her whole life from suffering consequences for her choices: first by her parents and then by her husband’s money. Of course, she would flee from actual work. This is contrasted with Lizzie, who has felt the harsh blows of financial need for as long as she’s been alive.

The two female characters are opposites and mirrors. A yin and yang, rich and poor, victim and villain. They are at first friends—or at least to the extent that two people can be, when one is paying the other. What they share is their lack of other friends, offering a kind of common ground. Lizzie has been an outcast her whole life; Adrienne had (one assumes) the kind of superficial friendships that evaporate in heavy weather.

Their encounter is random. That is, Adrienne was probably scrolling through Airbnb listings on an iPad while sipping Pinot Noir, and simply lit on something that was basically the opposite of renting a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. It was so remote and unknown there would be no chance of encountering anyone she knew. She was seeking the isolation that made Lizzie’s life a hell. If one wanted to read any sort of message here, it is of Copper Falls being the site of deprivation while the rich in Boston are oblivious. In post-industrial America, whole communities fall while others rise: win or lose, heads or tails. Yin and yang.

Who is the victim and who the villain is in the end a coin-toss. One cannot exist without the other. Yin and yang.

The men are secondary in this story. We see the women’s incompetent husbands (teenaged bully turned pill addict, and fraudster, respectively) and feel sorry for their wives. The main male character is a detective who is on the ball, but not quite (this is a crime novel, not a hero-detective story). Even Lizzie’s kind father is hapless: widowed early, he spent his life running the local junkyard, and now spends his nights passed out drunk in the cab of his truck. He’s as incapable of throwing his daughter a life jacket as he is of fastening his own.

Like a Dashiell Hammett novel, the story has a very small cast. The two women’s social isolation means no crowd of friends and acquaintances to poke their heads around the corner into the narrative. While they’re both young, neither has a mother (Lizzie’s is dead; Adrienne’s lost to dementia). Perhaps the absence of any maternal support is what has cast these women adrift. Or perhaps not. And yet, we have a picture of two women at opposite ends of the social spectrum, both of whom are simply treading water in their lives, and the point at which they intersect is the online marketplace, the vacation rental.

While we get a clear view of Copper Falls, Adrienne’s Boston is flat and featureless. The blandness of her environment, only serves to highlight the fake richness of her Instagram feed. Lizzie, who absented herself from social media, is shown to have a richer interior life, of ambitions and dreams. But this is an authorial choice to hold back from us Adrienne’s world, unmediated by the views of others.

We see her as others do: spoiled wife, oblivious, conceited. Interested in paleo and Pilates. There are some truth bombs here about the pursuit of perfection for women. The black eyes after a round of injected filler, for example. The constant treadmill of cosmetic “self care.” The way the image needs regular retouching, and yet is never quite enough.

The presence of technology has always been a challenge or a tool for crime writers. As when plots hinged on the missed phone call or telegram, and the classic technique of horror is the phone line to the house being cut. Today subtle ducks and weaves have to be made to work around the omnipresent technology in our lives, and still have some kind of thriller narrative. Here, a key point is that the lakehouse has no cell reception. And nothing awkward like an Alexa listening in on the crime. Rosenfield dodges the tech-focused approach (cameras, facial and voice recognition, the elements of high-tech crime solution) to have her characters slip through the surveillance net in various ways.

Like any good thriller, there are twists coming. I was reminded at times of Minette Walters’ darkly criminal women. Women with the kind of cold pragmatism in crisis that seems to flick on, like a secret talent. But there’s another layer here, the motivated/motiveless crime. Crimes that only work in an atomized, fractured society—like Ethan’s fraud, because the victims don’t matter. Because some people don’t matter.

And who is the victim and who the villain is in the end a coin-toss. One cannot exist without the other. Yin and yang.