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City of Strangers by Louise Millar

City of Strangers by Louise Millar
Pub. Date: November 1, 2016
Source: e-ARC via netgalley (Thank you, Atria!!)
Summary: When Grace and her childhood sweetheart Mac come home from their honeymoon in Thailand, they’re shocked to find a dead body beside their pile of unopened wedding presents. The police are unable to ID the man, so it is assumed that he was a burglar who died from natural causes. Little do they know that evidence for a rather different story is hidden right beneath their apartment…

Three months later, Grace finds a card that, in place of well wishes, bears the message: “That man was Lucian Grabole.” A newspaper reporter fearing for her job, Grace lands on an idea that could answer some questions, and save her career as well. She’ll pitch a story to her boss called “Who was the man in my kitchen?”

Soon Grace is trekking across Europe, talking to strangers and piecing together clues as she tries to unravel the mystery of who Lucian Grabole was, and why he met such a macabre end. Suddenly, with two more deaths linked to the case, it becomes clear that Grabole most certainly did not die a natural death. And the answer to the mystery of who the killer is, and why, lies back in Grace’s apartment…
Genre: Mystery/Thriller, Contemporary, Adult

SPOILER WARNING for the final paragraph!

Grace and Mac were high school sweethearts and recently tied the knot. When they return home from their honeymoon, they discover the shock of their lives: in the kitchen of their brand-new, never-lived-in apartment is a dead body. The police write it off as a burgling gone wrong, that the man hit his head and died before he could get to the stacks of unopened wedding presents in the otherwise empty apartment, but Grace isn’t so sure. Regardless of what happened, she is determined to find out just who the man is, find his family, and let them know about his passing.

As the months drag on without any progress in the case, Grace becomes increasingly frustrated until the day she discovers a note in a pile of still-untouched gifts. The handwritten note, just a singe scrawled message, soon has Grace jetsetting off around Europe, digging deeper into the mystery of just who Lucian Grabole really was.

Back in 2013 I discovered Millar’s Accidents Happen and fell hard. This creepy, terrifyingly real thriller got a 5 star rating from me and you all know how stingy I am about 5 stars! A year later I read The Hidden Girl and, while it wasn’t as satisfying as Accidents Happen (the ending was a bit hurried and needed a little tightening), I still enjoyed it immensely. Millar’s first novel, The Playdate is patiently waiting on my shelves until the day I need to sink into something good. In the three – nearly 4 – years I’ve known about her work, Louise Millar has become a go-to recommendation and one of my favorite comfort read authors. So when I heard about a new novel, City of Strangers, I was ecstatic! Back in February I included it in a post on 10 Upcoming Novels I Need to Get My Hands On and have been not-so-patiently waiting ever since.

So you can imagine how much it pains me to say this, but City of Strangers wasn’t very good. In fact, it read like a completely different writer’s work. Grace is a photographer/journalist and uses her connections at Scots Today to uncover clues as to who Grabole was and where he came from. HOWEVER, mixed in it an entirely separate storyline that follows the boss of Scots Today as she does her own investigative work. To be honest, I didn’t care for either. Sure I was right there in the beginning: the book opens with a dead body in the kitchen, how could I NOT be hooked?? But Grace’s desire to have the case resolved soon turns into an obsession and eventually she’s bouncing around Europe.

One thing I’ve noticed is that Millar’s leading men are all, well, jerks. Mac was no different. He’s controlling, rude, only cares about his goals and career. Their relationship takes on a slightly abusive and manipulative sheen once Grace leaves for Europe (without telling him). He soon fills up her phone with voicemail after voicemail, as first angry then adopting a pitiful and apologetic tone, pleading with her to just come home. The fact that he only proposed because Grace’s father was sick certainly didn’t start their marriage off on the right foot, particularly when her father passed away before the wedding. So it came as no surprise when Grace develops feelings for a big time photographer she was put in contact with in Amsterdam. I know unfaithful characters are a MAJOR turn-off for some readers, but I actually don’t mind when characters have affairs. That said, I didn’t care for this fling one bit. It felt clumsy and tacked on to up the drama. No thank you.

Another thing that bothered me was how there were so many clues that turned up. London leads to Paris which leads to Amsterdam which leads to Romania and at each stop Grace immediately discovers some vital piece of information…then heads off again. Now I like a face-paced thriller, but this was just so quick that I never felt fully connected to the mystery. The entire story was glossed over.

I’m baffled that City of Strangers is written by the same woman who wrote one of my favorite books. It doesn’t help matters that I’ve been waiting for this book for nearly a year; the disappointment hits that much harder. The mystery here was so convoluted, the pace way too quick, there was a random affair that made me queasy and felt as though it was only added in to heighten the drama. In the end, the big reveal felt hokey: the dead man was an infamous Romanian gangster/assassin who had no less than four aliases, there was some shady real estate business going on that targeted the elderly, and Grace’s husband? Turns out he wasn’t being abusive and manipulative! He was caught in the middle of his boss’s crime ring and if Grace continued to follow her leads it would have led back to John and Mac wanted to keep her safe and alive at home. Silly, reader! Ugh. I still highly, highly recommend Millar’s other novels, but City of Strangers is one to avoid.

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