Jane Jenkins is a smart-alecky semi-genius with the biting sass of a back-talking teen. She’s also a silver-spoon-fed-and-bred rich girl, raised in the educational milieu of an Edith Wharton novel: “I studied etiquette, music, antique furniture, napkin folding. I can spot a fake Picasso at a thousand paces; I dance the gavotte, I’m adept with a lemon fork, a butter pick, and a piccalilli spoon.”
And, at 27, she’s a California “It Girl” in the midst of a media feeding frenzy. On top of everything else, Jane, the narrator of Elizabeth Little’s stylish debut thriller, is set to be released from prison after her murder conviction is overturned, a decision that sets in motion her quest to discover the killer’s identity — and whether it was, in fact, her.
Ten years ago, Jane was sent to prison after being found guilty of killing her mother in their Beverly Hills home, with the implicative gun residue and smeared blood to prove it. But as “Dear Daughter’’ opens, Jane is freed because of an “ongoing investigation into the deliberate mishandling of evidence by LAPD crime lab technicians.” This doesn’t mean that the general populace buys her innocence, though, a point of view especially noticeable via the vicious rants of a blogger calling himself Trace Kessler. (Little’s narrative is interspersed cleverly and effectively with a smattering of blog entries, TMZ updates, print media reports, police interview transcripts, and, yes, even tweets.)
With the help of her lawyer Noah Washington, Jane plans to disappear from public life somewhere near Chicago — at least this is what she’s told Noah. Sooner than you can say “The Lady Vanishes” — as the celebrity news headline on a Jane Jenkins article puts it — Jane is ensconced on an out-of-state train with quite another destination in mind.
Already a fixture in lurid gossip columns and tabloids — her Wikipedia page notes that she has been “romantically linked to Tobey Maguire, Joshua Jackson . . . and Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World . . . She wore Alexander McQueen to her sentence hearing” — celebutante Jane may be an entertaining character, but pleasant she certainly is not (a miserable relationship with your mother, not to mention a decade in prison, can take it out of you).
Things shift dramatically, however, when she washes up in a no-horse town in South Dakota and slowly reveals pieces of her private story. The night of the murder, although Jane can’t remember the killing itself, she overheard her mother talking with a mystery man. Now she’s determined to discover seemingly tenuous connections to her past: “I was following a hunch, a hunch based on a fragmented memory of a conversation I’d barely heard.”
Jane’s relationship with her non-communicative mother, a chilly “Hitchcock blonde . . . [who] looked like Marilyn Monroe — but carried herself like Grace Kelly,” was distant, angry, and laden with perpetually confusing incidents: There was little room for affection between the two of them, and both thrived on deception and connivance.
On the night her mother died, Jane was rummaging in her mother’s closet, busy filching cash secreted in “the hollowed-out heel of a Tory Burch wedge . . . I was just pulling out the cash,” notes Jane, “when I saw the boots . . . oh, they were luscious . . . just shy of ‘Pretty Woman’ . . . I slipped the left one on and tugged on the zipper. It caught on my calf. ‘Skinny bitch,’ I muttered.”
As the well-paced novel dives into more extensive familial revelations, Jane proves both an astute guide and a master manipulator.
The fun really gets going as she engages with the minuscule-in-number but larger-than-life inhabitants of one-time gold-rush twin towns, landing in the midst of the annual Gold Rush Days festival, cornbread breakfasts, old-fashioned dances, and all. Tangling with the local business people, the highly active historical society, and remaining members of the five founding families proves not just fascinating for Jane, but infuses this mystery with a nicely comedic flavor. Is our protagonist an unreliable narrator, a victim of circumstance, a self-obsessed diva who just wants to be loved, or all of the above? Little keeps you guessing until the end — and then closes her book with a final, twisted flourish.Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.