Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Review: THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN

THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN by Mindy Meija (Quercus, 2017)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Seventeen-year-old Hattie Hoffman is a talented actress, loved by everyone in her Minnesotan hometown. So when she's found stabbed to death on the opening night of her school play, the tragedy rips through the fabric of the community.

Local sheriff Del Goodman, a good friend of Hattie's dad, vows to find her killer, but the investigation yields more secrets than answers; it turns out Hattie played as many parts offstage as on. 

As a keen crime reader, one of my favorite things is discovering a never-heard-of-it-before book or author that I end up really loving. Recently I became aware of Mindy Meija's first crime novel (her second novel), thanks to New Zealand Herald crime reviewer Greg Fleming, who wrote a cool feature about Meija as well as reviewing the book in his crime round-up. "Mejia - whose grandparents were farmers in rural Minnesota - captures the hardworking, no-nonsense Midwest character wonderfully," said Fleming. "The plot's tricky as it needs to be in these post Gone Girl times, but character and setting is king here."

I was immediately intrigued, as I'm a big fan of character-centric rural US noir from the likes of John Hart, Wiley Cash, Tom Bouman, early Gillian Flynn etc.

I wasn't disappointed. THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN (which is sold as EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE in the United States) is an exceptional crime novel.

Within the first few pages you know you're in the hands of a talented writer who's on a higher level than most. Meija has a lovely style which flows along, threading in lots of subtext and detail about character and setting without slowing a good narrative drive. The way she evokes rural Minnesota life is exquisite. The small town surrounded by farmland, where high schoolers and teachers who dream of more than football and blue-collar jobs (eg art, culture, city life) feel isolated and strange. The plain-spoken, hard-working people who are used to the cycling of the seasons and death as an everyday occurrence, but are jolted to the core when a local teenager is murdered.

The novel is told from three perspectives: sheriff Del Goodman, an aging Vietnam veteran tasked with finding Hattie's killer; Peter Lund, Hattie's drama and English teacher; and Hattie herselve.

Switching between three narrators and jumping back and forth in time could be distracting or a clunky device in lesser hands, but Meija handles it all beautifully, maintaining the flow and building an ever-deeper picture of the last year of Hattie's life, and what led up to her killing.

Meija shows compelling insight into her characters, the complexities and depths of human nature. How good people can make bad choices. How people can be one thing to some and completely different to others. How things that can easily seem black and white are really smudged grey. All the characters in THE LAST ACT OF HATTIE HOFFMAN, from the three narrators to parents, family, and friends, all feel achingly authentic. And understandable - we get where they come from or how they ended up taking various roads, even if we disagree with their choices and actions.

A superb page-turner that delights with huge depth when it comes to character and setting. One of the very best crime novels I've read in the past couple of years. Edgar judges and others take note.



Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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