“On a warm August night in 1980, six college students sneak into the dilapidated ruins of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, looking for a thrill. With a pianist, a painter and a teacher among them, the friends are full of potential. But it’s not long before they realize they are locked in—and not alone. When the friends get lost and separated, the terrifying night ends in tragedy, and the unexpected, far-reaching consequences reverberate through the survivors’ lives. As they go their separate ways, trying to move on, it becomes clear that their dark night in the prison has changed them all. Decades later, new evidence is found, and the dogged detective investigating the cold case charges one of them—celebrity chef Jon Casey— with murder. Only Casey’s old friend Judith Carrigan can testify to his innocence.
But Judith is protecting long-held secrets of her own – secrets that, if brought to light, could destroy her career as a travel writer and tear her away from her fireman husband and teenage son. If she chooses to help Casey, she risks losing the life she has fought to build and the woman she has struggled to become. In any life that contains a ‘before’ and an ‘after,’ how is it possible to live one life, not two?
Weaving deftly between 1980 and the present day, and told in an unforgettable voice, Long Black Veil is an intensely atmospheric thriller that explores the meaning of identity, loyalty, and love. Readers will hail this as Jennifer Finney Boylan’s triumphant return to fiction.”
My Thoughts: The publisher lists Jennifer Finney Boylan’s Long Black Veil as a suspense and thriller novel. However, only in some regards is this true. There is the mysterious events in the penitentiary all those years ago, and there is no doubt they left an indelible impression on each person who was there. Plus, there are many unresolved questions about that night that beg answering. Adding to that, Ms. Boylan builds on the existing atmosphere of a dilapidated prison at night to create an eerie and intense scene that leaves its own impression on readers. There is no doubt that the very basic set-up of the story is a murder mystery in which the murderer could very well be one of the friends, lending the rest of the story a higher than normal amount of suspense.
Yet, Long Black Veil is also a study of identity, how we identify ourselves and how others identify us. It is one woman’s search for those answers while she struggles to do what she knows to be right. It is yet another discussion of what makes us us.
To be fair, Judith’s self-discovery journey is one that defines her entire life, and it is such a defining portion of her character that it makes sense that it takes up 80 percent of the novel. Had I known a bit more about Ms. Boylan’s own personal history either before or while reading the novel, it would have also prepared me a bit more for the story. As it was, I was expecting a murder mystery; I was not expecting the identity exploration. To further confuse me, Ms. Boylan mentions in her author’s notes that she dedicates the novel to anyone who is struggle with their identity, particularly their gender identity. Iif this were truly a thriller, I would not expect such a dedication.
Expectations aside, the novel itself is decent. It is not the most exciting thriller to grace bookshelves, but again, the thriller portion is just a minor part of the story. What it does well is explore the idea of identity and how crippling identity confusion is for someone. Through Judith, one gets a glimpse into the only some of the turmoil, despair, and desperation someone feels when their body does not match their mind. We see her fears regarding her own self-worth and the validity of her relationships should the truth be known. It is fascinating insight and something that really makes you think about the masks we wear, the truth hiding beneath them, and how all of that affects our behavior towards and relationships with others.
Long Black Veil is a thriller in that we are witness to a tragedy that remains unresolved until the body shows up 35 years later, with the killer still at large and unknown. Yet, it is so much more than a thriller that to pigeonhole it in that category does the entire novel a disservice. In this era of reading diversely and learning about other experiences, Long Black Veil provides great insight into the transgender experience with the added benefit of a murder mystery in which to surround the questions.