In her debut novel, a psychological thriller that will prompt anxiety and an immediate need to read straight through, Ani Katz shows that she knows this mystery genre, especially as it involves an unreliable narrator, and that she is skilled enough to avoid familiar tropes.
Her first-person narrator, Thomas Martin, is male at a time when most gone-girl mysteries feature disturbed, needy young women. A rising star at a prestigious midtown ad agency, Thomas values creativity and risk, but declares he would never allow his ambition to take precedence over dedication to and love for his beloved family, which includes his beautiful French-born Jewish wife, Miriam, and their 11-year old daughter, Ava. He wants to protect them — from what is not clear, though he alludes to his parents’ bad marriage and his own unhappy childhood growing up in the old Victorian family house on the south shore of Long Island, a setting that is central to the narrative because suburbia can seem to promise safety.
Attractive, attentive to the needs of his grown-up younger twin sisters who still live with their mother (an older sister Evie died some years ago and his father is dead), Thomas values art, particularly opera, to which he continually refers throughout his memoir-like narrative, his favorite being “Tannhäuser,” Wagner’s tragic tale of passion and atonement. He’s also proud of his reputation at his ad agency, having risen fast through the ranks and becoming a revered mentor to his female assistants. He would seem, as the book’s title has it, to be “a good man,” but then again, that phrase may call up the old song or the famous horror story by Flannery O’Connor – “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”
Tension mounts as Katz moves back and forth in time, having Thomas hint at something wrong with his birth family. When he takes Miriam to meet his mother and sisters, he acknowledges that the twins are “weird” (as are parts of the decaying house), and he deflects references to Evie’s fatal fall years ago from an upstairs window. The reader grows uneasy as Thomas admits to insecure memory and an increasing need to exercise paternal protectionism.
Can his recollections be trusted? Can his present-day observations be accurate? The opening section — Thomas is now 42 — suggests that he may not be reliable: “I have my own struggles with understanding exactly what happened. Sometimes I think I am a victim of circumstance. Sometimes I think I am a monster. Most often I think I am like Tannhäuser himself — a deeply flawed man who sacrifices everything in an act of desperation, a sinner who can only gain salvation through the death of his most beloved.” And yet Thomas sees Tannhäuser as “the perfect antihero — noble and good-hearted, yet catastrophically impulsive in his emotions.”
Katz slowly weaves the web. Her decision not to use italics or quotation marks for dialogue enhances the growing sense of dread about a man who can’t seem to separate illusion and reality, or distill some of what he recalls. One day, for example, he remembers coming home and passing “a dead squirrel, ironed into the road like a dried flower pressed between the pages of a heavy book.”
His father had been listening to “La Boheme,” crying and secreting himself with Evie. He hits Thomas. Pain, fear, rage, opera merge as the family dynamic in the past emerges as deeply dysfunctional. In the present, however, Thomas thinks a lot of his role as husband, father, boss, and art connoisseur — a patriarch who wants to do the right thing, a good man. His self-assessment increasingly sounds forced, though, disturbingly quaint, dangerous.
In one of those self-written Conversations with the Author that pass as interviews, Katz notes that the story was “inspired by a tragedy that happened in the extended family of a close friend several decades ago.” She wanted to create a character who would draw the reader in as she explored “toxic masculinity and the dangers of outdated gender norms.” She spent a lot of time, she says, reading men’s blogs “in order to absorb and better embody the highly regressive language these men employ to talk about women, marriage, and family” to document a “pervasive mind set” that can lead to “gender violence and murder.” To say more would be a spoiler alert.