How well do you know your neighbor? For many people today, the answer is probably, “Who are you and why are you talking to me?” If you didn’t see your neighbor for a week, would you notice? For a month? For longer? It’s scary to realize that, for many people, it could be months before they were really missed. And, in Elizabeth Haynes’ new novel, Human Remains, that very vulnerability is what attracts a serial killer so elusive, no one actually realizes that he’s killing anyone.
Annabel has never been a terribly social person, but when she investigates her next-door neighbor’s house based on an odd smell, she discovers a body seemingly left alone there for weeks without notice. Dismayed by how easy it was for someone to simply disappear, Annabel uses her position as a civilian analyst with the police to dig up information about similar deaths, and finds a frightening statistic about her town – something that suggests there’s more to these deaths than simple accidents.
I genuinely enjoyed Human Remains. Annabel is a heroine who remains likable and interesting even when she’s acting like a doormat or being a bit anti-social. Indeed, Haynes has a talent for crafting characters you can really relate to regardless of how broken they may be, but the grounded nature of most of the book will make a few small elements stand out all the more. I don’t even need to guess what the most difficult part of the book to swallow is going to be, so I’ll just come out and say it: The killer’s methods are perhaps just a step too far into the ridiculous. Saying why would be unfair, I think, because Haynes does a good job integrating it into the world, and because it fits so flawlessly with the book’s thematic hook, but it still took a few chapters for me to fully accept that was going on.
But what carries the book through its roughest patches and makes it easy to suspend disbelief for some of the book’s more…unexpected surprises, is Haynes’ dedication to her theme. She manages to tackle loneliness without reducing it to bland social tics or a ‘disease’ that must be fixed for someone to be a better person, and the focus on loneliness in city life help keep it stronger than your average serial killer yarn. Which is good! There’s some stuff in this book that doesn’t quite work, but I’d still ultimately recommend Human Remains as a focused, emotionally deft thriller with a strong point of view that overpowers whatever other issues I have.
Cal Cleary is a librarian, critic and writer in rural Ohio. You can find more of his work at read/RANT and Comics Crux.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Harper Paperbacks. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.