The Black Hour, by Lori Rader-Day

Earlier today, I tweeted that I’m still not sure whether or not I liked The Black Hour, by Lori Rader-Day. I finished it last night. I’m still puzzled by my reaction to it. Hopefully I come to a conclusion by the end of this review.

The Black Hour

I read recently that the United States has seen an average of one school shooting per week since the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2014. Since the first instances of school gun violence, we seem stymied by how to deal with and prevent them. Gun rights advocates proclaim their Second Amendment Rights. Gun control advocates use statistics from other developed countries to counter their opponents’ arguments. Even more difficult than the debate over guns is learning what causes people to murder their fellow students or strangers. Bullying is often held up as a root cause. Mental illness is another. Sometimes, as in Rader-Day’s The Black Hour, there is no apparent cause.

Ten months before the book opens, Dr. Amelia Emmet was shot by a student who then turned the gun on himself. She nearly died of her injuries. While she was in an out of consciousness, speculation ran wild about why Leonard Lehane shot Dr. Emmet. Was she sleeping with him? Did she fail him? There must have been a reason. We can’t handle random violence. The world only makes sense to use when we can say, “Ah, so-and-so deserved it! Bad things don’t just happen to good people.” Amelia cannot remember this student and record show that Lehane never enrolled in any of her classes. When Amelia returns to teach, people still eye her askance and speculate about her and don’t know what to say to her. The fact that she now walks with a cane and still needs strong pain medication doesn’t help. Little things trigger memories of the attack and, before long, Amelia starts to wonder if it was a mistake to come back.

Half of The Black Hour is narrated by Dr. Emmet. The other half is narrated by her graduate assistant, Nathaniel Barber. Nathaniel is fascinated by historical mass shootings. He hangs a picture of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre crime scene on his bulletin board until his roommate makes him take it down. Nathanial came to Rothbert University specifically to study Dr. Emmet’s case, but he’s so socially awkward that he never quite asks permission before he starts to question students and staff who knew Lehane. Amelia is, instead, pressured by a local reporter who wants to write about the real story to make his name in his dying business. Amelia resists their prodding, but she questions and digs, too. She can’t go on without knowing why.

As the trio investigate, they uncover a crime that goes beyond what Leonard Lehane tried to do ten months before. And this is the part I’m not sure I liked. The Black Hour begins as a sensitive but disturbing meditation on victim psychology and senseless violence. At the end, it has become a life-and-death thriller. I was left wondering what happened to the deft writing of the opening chapters as Rader-Day started channeling her inner mystery potboiler novelist. That said, I fully realize that part of my problem is the fact that I had very different expectations of this book. This is not the writer’s fault (although I did question whether some people in the book started acting out of character). If I had gone in expecting a thriller, I would probably rate this book above average without any qualms.

What bothers me most about the thriller ending is much like what bothered me about Hannibal Rising. By identifying motives and psychological factors, you reduce the book from its universal theme. Hannibal Rising changed Hannibal Lector from an almost supernatural figure to just another sociopathic serial killer. The Black Hour‘s ending changed the story from being applicable to almost any shooting into another criminal conspiracy. I was left mourning the book that could have been.

Of course, this is my fault entirely. It’s the fault of my expectations. Rader-Day is a solid writer. I loved the character she created in the prickly, wounded Dr. Amelia Emmet. Rader-Day absolutely nailed the gossiping and rumor mongering that follows an apparently inexplicable crime. The Black Hour is a great thriller.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for a fair review. It will be released 8 July 2014.

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