Solid four stars out of five. Warning: there is discussion of rape and a serial rapist, although not graphic.
Clemmie – or, as her neighbors know her, Helen – lives in a sleepy, sort-of retirement community called Sun City. Her next door neighbor Dom texts her every morning to let her know he’s ok. Except today: no text.
Clemmie has a key to Dom’s place – in case of emergency, and something her friends and neighbors do not know. She heads next door into Dom’s place, calling out for him. She doesn’t find him, but she does find a door in the garage that leads to the other attached villa, presumably owned by neighbors who are rarely seen.
Telling herself that she’s just checking for Dom, she enters the third (very empty, almost unlived-in) villa and sees a glass dragon sculpture that she thinks is so beautiful that she takes a picture and texts it to her nephew.
So begins Before She Was Helen, a character-driven mystery set in a limited community area.
Her text puts into a motion a grand mystery: the creator of the dragon is hunting for money stolen from him and tracks down Clemmie/Helen, Dom is missing, no one knows much of anything about the ghost neighbors, Clemmie’s friend Joyce is kicking out her boyfriend (who has been taking money from her checking account in bits and pieces), and all the other neighbors join in the fun when a body is found in Dom’s golf cart, in his garage.
There’s another story as well: Clemmie’s life before she became Helen, as the title suggests, in the 50s. It involves Clemmie being stalked and raped repeatedly by a man, her becoming pregnant tanks to her rapist, and giving up the child to an adoptive couple. When she moves from place to place, trying to escape him, he always finds where she is living and shows up. At one point, he rapes her roommate when he turns up but doesn’t find Clemmie. The rapist is later found dead. The case went cold in the past, and in the present, Clemmie’s nephew texts her that the case is being reopened, adding another worry to her pile.
The book moves fairly seamlessly between the present and the past, both eras containing complex mysteries to be solved: in the present, who among Clemmie’s neighbors are involved in drugs/dealing, and who killed the young man found in Dom’s garage? In the past, how did Clemmie finally escape, and who killed the stalker/rapist?
While none of the characters are very deeply presented beyond Clemmie, I still found it an enjoyable read and was wondering how all the pieces would be tied together, or indeed, if they could be. Answer: yes, they could be, and were.
As noted, this is a character-driven novel: there are no big action sequences or gory scenes beyond some blood in a knife fight that involves the artist and one of Clemmie’s neighbors. If you are looking or gunfights and foot (or golf cart) chases, you won’t find that here. But if you’re looking for a good read of how one woman reinvented herself and how she manages to get through the webs small town communities can weave, this is the book for you.
Thanks to NetGalley and Poisoned Pen Press for the advance reading copy.