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WHITE ELEPHANT
by Trish Harnetiaux
Simon & Schuster, October 2019
240 pages
$25.00
ISBN: 1501199900


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

The holiday season is fast approaching in ski resort Aspen, Colorado and architect Henry Calhoun and his realtor wife Claudine, owners of upscale Calhoun & Calhoun, are horrified to find that their business is sliding into hard times. Suddenly, a phone call from Hollywood, a personal one from mega pop star Zara, points the way back to prosperity and happiness for them. She wants to fly out to look at the very newly available mountain mansion retreat that Henry designed years ago. Price tag: $18,500,000+. Hooray!

The time frame is desperately short but Claudine is a professional wheeler and dealer. She chooses immediately to hold her annual office holiday do at the mansion while Zara's in town, inviting a select few Aspenites who will behave well and impress Zara with the classy community that she can join. The office tradition has evolved into a competitive and fairly cutthroat White Elephant gift exchange (complete with snagging other people's gifts) and Claudine sees that as a sturdy vehicle for the party she'll be able to control the order of gift selection so that Zara gets a great gift, is smitten with everything, and signs the contract to purchase the place on the spot.

The White Elephant exchange does not go according to plans, Henry is useless at the party because he is riddled with guilt and fear over a long-held secret that seems to be leaking into view, and Claudine panics. Boom, boom, boom all is unraveled and the police have to be called.

The problems with this mystery abound.

The setting is faked: the mountains and views, a few including ski slopes, are mentioned from time to time but without much in the way of description, and the holiday aspect is lost within the opening chapters Christmas and its trappings are never even mentioned. So much for where and when all this takes place.

The characters are uniformly undeveloped and uniformly self-absorbed and self-serving. There is not a single one that the reader can care about.

The plot is burdened with layers of obfuscation such as a longish side meander into the murder trial of Claudine Longet that took place years ago, pulling in her ex-husband Andy Williams to support her lovingly the whole four days it lasted. This technique certainly pads out the book but gets the mystery nowhere at all.

And the structure of the story is choppy and deliberately confusing perhaps added to the side issues meant to make everything seem more mysterious. There are actually forty-nine chapters in two hundred and forty pages. Some of those chapters are pretty brief. Adding to the choppiness are the back flashes. However, the choppiest of all is the fact that author Trish Harnetiaux has chosen to unfold her tale through four different narrators so we lurch from one voice and point of view to another over and over and over again. William Faulkner pioneered this technique. He was a genius.

Finally, there isn't really a mystery here. The reader just plows on waiting for the author to dump another unexpected chunk of information on the page. There is no sleuthing, no figuring out, no challenge offered.

At one point (in chapter two, actually), Zara seems to provide the key to the book: she has been dumped by hot rock star Liam after a six-month relationship six months was a personal record for her. As she looks back on their time together, she is scathing in her assessment of him. "That whole 'prince of darkness' thing is . . . . phony. He thinks it's 'performance art'. . . . He has no idea what performance art even is. It's an actual thing."

If, and it may be a stretch, Harnetiaux has created a book "performing" as a mystery novel, then I tip my hat to her. It's slick and all I can say is OH!

Diana Borse is retired from teaching English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and savoring the chance to read as much as she always wanted to.

Reviewed by Diana Borse, November 2019

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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