Tell Me You're Sorry
You probably have formed an impression of Kevin O’Brien’s books by now, given the impressive length of his backlist as well as his reliably sturdy and graphic fictional explorations into the psyches of (hopefully) fictional serial killers. Titles such as TERRIFIED, VICIOUS, DISTURBED and KILLING SPREE pretty much tell you in advance what you’re getting, all of which is good, not to mention grisly. So what is one to make of O’Brien’s latest, TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY, a tome with a deceptively and relatively benign title? What you can take to the bank is that this is O’Brien’s best novel thus far, a work that his loyal fan base will wholeheartedly embrace while attracting armies of new readers to his tent.
The trademark graphic violence of O’Brien’s previous works is scaled back just a bit in TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY, which puts a great deal more emphasis on the whodunit factor. The primary focus here is Stephanie Coburn, an unmarried-but-looking pilot who is dating a Congressman in a downlow situation initiated at his insistence. Stephanie isn’t wildly happy to begin with, but her life is thoroughly turned upside down when her sister suddenly and inexplicably commits suicide. Her brother-in-law remarries just a few months later. The shocker occurs when he, his new bride, and his children are brutally murdered in what appears to be a robbery-home invasion gone terribly wrong. Stephanie is devastated, given that the entire family has been wiped out in less than a year.
"The mystery at the heart of the book is a riveting one, but it’s not the only reason to put it on your 'must read next' list.... Throw in an ironic and satisfying ending with some bits of rough justice, and you have TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY, which you won’t be sorry for having started and finished."
However, something about the entire set of circumstances doesn’t seem quite right to Stephanie, even though the police have a couple of young hoodlums in custody who have admitted culpability in the murders as well as a string of home invasions that, thankfully, did not result in killings. There is also something about her brother-in-law’s short-lived new wife, who nobody seems to have met, that doesn’t add up. Stephanie begins asking questions and taking some investigative steps on her own, including hiring a private detective. As she becomes obsessed with what has happened, she begins alienating those around her. Her PI quits the case, advising her to save her money; her sister’s mother-in-law asks her to stop prolonging the agony; and the survivor of a similar suicide and murder refuses to take her calls.
The latter is a high school student named Ryan Farrell, who slowly comes to the realization that Stephanie may be right. Ryan and Stephanie form an initially uneasy alliance, born of unspeakable tragedy, and discover not only similar circumstances --- a suicide, followed by remarriage and subsequent murders --- but also a connection between each set of slayings, including those involving Ryan’s and Stephanie’s respective families. The motive and the identification of the doer lay in the past, to a summer night when emotions ran out of control, and disasters, known and unknown, occurred. The sins and omissions of the past have come to the present to collect from the guilty and innocent alike, and only Ryan and Stephanie acting together, though separated by miles, stand in the way.
The mystery at the heart of the book is a riveting one, but it’s not the only reason to put it on your “must read next” list. The characterization here is terrific, particularly with respect to Stephanie, who you will want to see succeed on several levels by book’s end. Ryan is also an attractive character who comes through when it’s time to stand up and be counted. Throw in an ironic and satisfying ending with some bits of rough justice, and you have TELL ME YOU’RE SORRY, which you won’t be sorry for having started and finished.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 2, 2014