Murder mysteries usually include a few key characters: there’s a victim, a killer, and someone who solves the whodunnit. As the novel progresses, the reader works alongside the detective or amateur sleuth to identify the circumstances of the death, the identity of the killer, the motive, and the details of how everything went down.
At the beginning of Katie Williams’ latest novel, My Murder, the reader ostensibly already knows all of this information. The victim is Lou, short for Louise. The murderer, Edward Early, has already been caught and waits in government custody to serve out his sentence. Lou’s murder was the latest in a series of killings committed by Early.
But there are a few twists. The world of My Murder is speculative, where virtual reality therapy and automated vehicles are not only possible, but mainstream.
And the victim, Lou, is alive.
Cloned and (sort of) resurrected by a governmental replication commission, Lou and Early’s other five victims attend a serial killer survivors’ group and grapple with how to reenter their former lives.
The book starts with Lou preparing to attend her first party post-murder. As she goes to retrieve a pair of pants from her closet, she notices a green canvas bag on the floor. Inside the bag, under a layer of gym clothes, are Lou’s passport, Social Security card, and a few sentimental items: a bracelet her dad gave her and her newborn daughter’s dried umbilical cord. She knows she packed the bag a few weeks after her daughter, Nova, was born, and she told herself it didn’t mean she was going to leave her family. But then Lou was murdered. Then she was cloned. And now, here she is, shoving the bag back into the closet and telling herself she will unpack it tomorrow. Her husband, Silas, never needs to know.
The premise is fascinating: a new mother gets a second chance at life after being murdered by a serial killer and cloned by the government, including the opportunity to solve her own murder. The novel delivers, offering a nuanced exploration of identity, social fascination with serial killers, and the modern paradoxes and challenges of reconciling motherhood and personhood.
My Murder deftly explores the challenges and relationship dynamics attendant to motherhood. During a conversation with Silas, Lou recollects how she felt after her daughter was born, before being murdered. She thinks back to how she felt, like “a new mother who felt dead inside,” and hopes Silas avoids naming the feeling, as if doing so “might draw its attention, might swing its terrible, foggy eye back to me.” Cloned Lou examines her pre-murder self (and whether “self” is how she would even describe that person) with clarity, and she finds someone struggling with postpartum depression and guilty for failing to measure up to idyllic motherhood. Unsurprisingly, those feelings of inadequacy are built on a foundation of social norms: the book is clear about who most often shoulders the blame when an offspring, whether child or grown-up, behaves badly. When Lou and a friend from the survivors’ group, Fern, discuss the possibility of speaking with their killer’s mother, Fern says, “Her son murdered people. And people always blame the mother.”
A thriller’s plot twists often require readers to seriously suspend their disbelief. Readers learn to expect evil twins and monsters lurking in the dark. Given My Murder’s basic ingredients—cloning and secret politics stemming from a government project and technology that doesn’t exist quite yet—one might expect the book to demand a more strenuous suspension of disbelief. But Williams manages to make each of these speculative elements feel seamlessly integrated into daily life, particularly where the characters’ depression and ambivalence and basic human urges are at the forefront of the novel. There isn’t a need to suspend one’s disbelief when everything is believable in the first place, and Williams’ willingness to examine the darkest parts of her characters provides a solid foundation for a suspenseful plot. For all its twists and turns, My Murder is grounded in character development, and Lou’s uneasy, complicated feelings about motherhood and domesticity shine through. These feelings propel the book’s suspense and pacing so Williams doesn’t need to rely on (or fall prey to) some of the less plausible revelations that can sometimes accompany murder mystery plots.
Many thrillers even seem to pluck a killer’s motive from a menu of seven deadly sins. Lust! (The wife discovered her husband was cheating with her sister/his secretary/the hot neighbor next door.) Greed! (The real estate developer took out the nephew who was poised to inherit the coveted land.) Wrath! (The killer was just an evil dude.) That’s not to say that any of those motives are unrewarding. One of the reasons thrillers rely on certain formulas is that humans really do end up feeling many of the same categories of urges and desires. Playing out those urges until there’s a dead body on the page allows the author (and therefore, reader) to probe not only general human nature but their own: What will people kill for? What would I kill for?
My Murder adopts some of these genre-specific elements. At various points readers are prompted to ask the questions common to murder mysteries. Did the husband do it? Is the suspect lying or telling the truth? Who can be trusted? But Williams employs these tropes to reach an explanation that is both more complicated and deeply satisfying.
The payoff in My Murder is worth keeping unspoiled so readers can enjoy it on their own. Whether or not the mystery is solved or the survivors’ group gets its vengeance, readers are left with the kinds of thought-provoking questions about human nature and their own decisions that the best mysteries evoke. What will people kill for? What would I kill for?
My Murder: A Novel
Published June 6, 2023
Erika is a writer and lawyer currently living in Chicago.