Reviewed by Sara Hodon
The Start of Everything
by Emily Winslow
January 8, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0385342902, 272 pages
Set in the historic college city of Cambridge, England, The Start of Everything by Emily Winslow is a stylish literary mystery that keeps readers guessing. With multiple alternating narrators (all of whom with checkered pasts they’d like to forget), overlapping plotlines, and any number of motives, Winslow doesn’t make it easy on the reader.
Detective Chloe Frohmann and her partner, Morris Keene, are assigned to a murder case involving a badly decomposed body of a teenage girl which had been discovered in the watery fens. As they dig deeper, their investigation leads them to Deeping House, a sprawling country manor inhabited by a number of tenants. The detectives learn that during one particularly snowy Christmas, two families, two nannies, and a writer were snowed in at the house together when the road out was impassable. What happened in that house was directly connected to the murdered young woman.
Winslow makes each of her narrators just flawed enough that any one of them may have been responsible for the young woman’s death. There’s socially awkward Mathilde Oliver, a young girl who works in Corpus College’s dead letter office and the daughter of a respected academic. Her presence throughout the book is a bit unsettling—she seems to be the type of girl who never quite fit in at school, and was always on the outside, yet desperately wanted to be “in”. It’s almost tempting to sympathize with her, but her stalker-like tendencies stop her just short of likeable. There’s Grace Rhys, one of the nannies who lived and worked at Deeping House, and George Hart-Fraser, a charming young student whose name appears in a number of early chapters before he has his chance to tell his own version of events. As he is mentioned frequently, he is one to watch particularly closely.
Frohmann and Keene’s narratives are interspersed throughout. While neither detective seems to have a direct connection to the case (as in, neither one could be thought of as responsible), each of their back stories seem fascinating, and I was left wishing that Winslow had gone into more of their history. While it’s easy to immediately begin identifying suspects and motives, it’s clear that both Frohmann and Keene have been carrying their own respective burdens for some time. For example, in one of the first chapters Winslow reveals that Keene has been injured, and that injury may keep him from completing the full duties of his job. She later reveals that he was stabbed. By whom? Under what conditions? Was it related to a case or an isolated incident? Was Frohmann involved, as either a witness or as his partner who may have arrived too late to help? Frohmann is struggling with guilt related to Keene’s injury. Why? How will this impact them professionally, both as partners and individuals? Both partners are deeply shaken by Keene’s accident, their confidence at an all-time low. While they both view this case an opportunity to redeem themselves, they both second-guess their investigative methods and, regrettably—when trusting another person with your life—each other. Winslow eventually reveals more of the circumstances involving Keene’s injury, but does it subtly so that the reader must pay close attention to the details.
Even the secondary characters have deep character flaws, which again raises some questions. Was Mrs. Bennet, one of the mothers of the families residing at Deeping House, connected in some way? She appears more than midway through the book, but events that occurred involving her family bring about some startling discoveries. What about her disabled daughter, who can’t communicate but may likely “snap” if she saw something that disturbed her?
The novel is chilling in its own way, mainly from a psychological perspective. It seems clear that there was a lot of manipulation and provocation happening prior to the young woman’s murder. In the end it seemed that the young woman was a classic victim—someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, on the receiving end of someone else’s insecurities.
The Start of Everything provides a generous helping of plot twists and turns, causing the reader to question virtually every theory they may construct as to the responsible party. Through this novel, Winslow raises the point that not everyone may be as they seem—there may be a touch of psychosis lurking right below the calmest of surfaces.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon’s work has appeared in History, Young Money, WritersWeekly.com, and The Valley: Lebanon Valley College’s Magazine, among others. She is also the “Date and Relate” columnist for Online Dating Magazine (www.onlinedatingmagazine.com). Read more about her trials and triumphs in the writing life on her blog, http://adventuresinthewritinglife.blogspot.com