Book review: Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin

Playing Dead
by Julia Heaberlin
Ballantine Books (pb), 2012

This debut novel is set mainly in the wilds of Texas. The narrator is Tommie, in her early 30s and an equine psychologist by profession – she rehabilitates children whose lives have been shattered in some way by encouraging them to ride and train horses. Tommie was set to be either a great pianist or a rodeo star, but her hopes for both potential professions were dashed in one fell swoop when, as a young girl, someone ensured she rode a “banned” steer, so she fell and broke her hand when it trod on her.

If this preamble gives you a hint that this novel has elements of an overblown soap opera, you would be right. Tommie is one of those well-educated but daffy protagonists, who is paranoid about her safety yet is always getting herself into avoidable, dangerous situations. She has a few useful men to protect her – an Afghanistan vet boyfriend, her parents’ ranch hand, an old Southern lawyer, a crack journalist and a taxi driver. Tommie is scared because she has received a shocking letter just after her “Daddy” has died. The letter says that Tommie’s mother is in fact a woman married to an infamous, jailed mobster. The woman who Tommie has always thought of as her mother is in a care-hospital suffering from Alzheimer’s, so cannot communicate with her daughter. Tommie’s sister Sadie and her cute niece Maddie provide useful support and a sounding board for her concerns.

At the bottom of this novel is a good mystery story, actually quite simple. Yet the author makes it appear extremely complicated by filtering everything through Tommie’s unreliable perceptions and memories of her childhood on the ranch as a sort of tomboy-rich-girl. Tommie is, obviously, desperate to find out the truth about her origins, yet at the same time fearful. Most of the first half of the book is taken up with her feelings of insecurity, her dreams and hallucinations as she fears the people she has to meet but also makes sure that she does not have any help or back-up when she does so. Somewhat crazy things happen, such as Tommie is told to wear green clothes to visit the woman claiming to be her biological mother – it turns out, so that she is well-camouflaged when sitting in the conservatory. She also has a phone relationship with an exceptionally irritating fellow-inmate of the mobster, a woman whose calls pepper the narrative. There were moments when I almost did not continue. But there was enough interest underneath all the baroque paranoia to keep me going.

Eventually, Tommie sharpens up a bit, and follows up some of the clues she finds – for example she was told by the authorities a while back that her social security number was given to her in error. Towards the end of the book, she decides to follow up on the person who had the number she thought was hers for most of her life. Right at the end of the book, one of the characters provides another clue (which he could have done on page 10) that rapidly allows all the loose ends to be tied up – and it is certainly the case that many of the hints throughout do turn out to have relevance to the plot (though it was pretty easy to guess the main twist), even if some of them, in particular the ones involving the mob, are over-hastily resolved.

I don’t think that Playing Dead is the best debut novel I’ve read recently, but it has promise. The novel has a strong element of the author trying to be too clever in deliberately obscuring the plot and laying on too thick the Texan/Southern clichés – it reminded me a bit of books by Gillian Flynn. The characterisation in some cases is weak. A man who tells Tommie he is a journalist helps her one night at her ranch when she’s taken some of her father’s prescription drugs. The next time we meet this character, he is very drunk – Tommie reflects that he is always drunk, as if the previous event had not occurred. I think the author has a good way with language and will go on to write interesting books, but I hope with fewer circular elements and more consistency.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this novel.

Other reviews of Playing Dead: Jen’s Book Thoughts, Kirkus reviews and Life in Review.

Author website.

8 thoughts on “Book review: Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin

  1. Glad to see you think the book has promise. I like the idea of a setting. I love ranch life that you sometimes get in Marcia Muller books. The cover is slightly odd – it doesn’t look like a CF book at all.

    • Thanks, Sarah. Yes, I think they are going for the “women’s fiction slightly literary feel” market… a way it isn’t really a crime novel. Certainly the mob/FBI parts are a bit weak, I thought; the author is more interested in her characters & setting (no bad thing), though her plotting is good.

  2. Maxine – It’s an interesting premise for a novel. The fact that Tommie is an equine psychologist got my attention and it’s potentially really engaging that there is a truth about her past that she can’t learn from her mother. That aspect of the story has me interested. I’m glad you think the author’s style has promise too. I may read this one just on those elements.

    • Thanks, Margot, I’ll look forward to what you make of this one if you do read it. I think it is quite ambitious which is good (ie breaking out of genre sterotypes) but does not entirely succeed.

  3. Hi Maxine. Great review. You are a very good writer. I am popping in to your blog to ask you to consider reviewing my book, The Walker on Cape. I would be happy to send you a copy.
    Thank you
    Mike Martin

  4. Pingback: Playing Dead by Julia Heaberlin | Petrona Book Reviews archive

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