A Review of Hank Phillippi Ryan’s “Trust Me”
A “Guilty” Pleasure?
Summer is rapidly approaching, so you may be looking for a good book to read under an umbrella that protects you from the sun with a cold drink in hand. You will be probably looking for something trashy and light. Well, Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Trust Me is that kind of book. The only problem is, it’s not a very good book. Written in a tabloid style with clunky sentences, this legal thriller initially pushes some interesting buttons but gets lamer and lamer as it goes along as characters invent so many stories about how a little toddler was killed (the raison d’être of this work) that the reader may just throw up their hands and cry, “Uncle!” Or otherwise just throw the book across the room.
The book’s protagonist is journalist Mercer Hennessy, a Boston native who has gone pretty much reclusive after her husband and young daughter were killed in a car accident the year prior. Holed up in her own home, Mercer gets an assignment: write a true-crime book about Ashyln Bryant, a young woman who is about to go on trial for killing her two-year-old daughter. Naturally, Mercer (and everyone else in the novel) thinks Ashyln is guilty as sin, and is going to write a book that completely trashes her. However, things go awry when Ashyln is found not guilty due to a lack of forensics that ties her to the murder (or was it?). There’s a twist, then: Mercer still has to write a book that will tarnish Ashlyn, but now Ashlyn is in Mercer’s home hiding out from everyone, weaving a tale of deception as she goes along — or is she?
The novel is interesting in that it confronts the issue of bias, whether it comes to reporting or being a jury in a murder trial. Mercer is out to character assassinate Ashlyn, but eventually wonders if Ashlyn is telling the truth and didn’t kill her infant daughter. The book, then, is an examination of prejudices in society that work against defendants based on how they’ve been shaped by the media. However, I’m making this book sound smarter than it is. Trust Me is strictly a dime-store potboiler with very little subtext and whose existence is cribbed from the real-life Casey Anthony trial liberally.
What really works against Trust Me is that it is a snoozapolooza. During the first third of the book, the main character is housebound and is covering the trial by watching a feed on her television. Scintillating, right? Then, the action moves to the main character’s kitchen and a nearby bagel shop for conversation. The protagonist, in other words, doesn’t really protag. When she does, such as when she finds out that a juror has defied the rules of the courtroom, she goes against character and rats this individual out to the defense attorney. Um, doesn’t that go against the fact that, in doing so, she risks a mistrial and the book she’s supposed to write (and get handsomely paid for) would go into the garbage?
This is also a very talky book. Characters just talk and talk, hypothesizing what the real story behind Ashlyn’s daughter’s death really might be, and then the story changes — relegating the previous version of the story to the dust bin. In short, Trust Me is a novel that’s all about padding. If you took away the middle third of the book, which drags on and on, you’d have a book that would probably still work. However, the author is out to outsmart us and pull the wool over our eyes with all of her red herrings. It’s just not very clever. By the start of the final third of the novel, you may just stop caring what happens to these individuals because you can make heads or tails of the truth versus the lies.
The book also isn’t written very well. It’s really meant for people who don’t really have a large vocabulary but are interested in true-crime legal thrillers (can you call this book a legal thriller when the courtroom scenes are pretty much in the first third?). I’d mentioned the term “tabloid style” earlier, and that’s exactly what this is. If you read magazines or newspapers that are dedicated to the latest in violence and celebrity-dom, usually merging the two of those things together, you will probably like this book. It just wasn’t for me — the writing was too juvenile and pedestrian.
That all said, there is an interesting tactic in Trust Me, as it contains a bit of a novel within a novel, so to speak, since we get to read snippets of Mercer’s work-in-progress. Those morsels may just be the most intriguing thing about this volume, because when the focus shifts away from the “fiction” that Mercer is writing or wants to write, things grind to a halt. For instance, one of the characters turns out to be paranoid, so when the fire alarm goes off in Mercer’s home during the middle of the night due to burnt toast in the toaster, we get a whole chapter devoted to who may have caused it. Don’t people remember that they have made food for themselves? D’oh!
In essence, there’s a germ of a great novel in the premise of this tome. The whole nature of truth versus fiction that is weaved into the narrative of courtroom proceedings is fodder for a great read. Unfortunately, the material is in less-than-capable hands. Ryan is no word stylist or a writer with great flair. She simply just prattles on and on, and finally ties up the loose threads of her book in one fell swoop as though she realized that she’d gone on for something like 400 pages and needed to end things really quickly. In the end, Trust Me is less than satisfying. You should probably risk sunburn — better that than sitting under an umbrella in the shade trying to read this sorry excuse for a thriller. You may thank me later for the redness and discomfort.
Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Trust Me was published by Forge on August 28, 2018.
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