The Bottom Line: A twisty, gut-punch crime thriller that manages to both enrage and entertain en route to its shocking conclusion. The definition of a page-turner.
When Things Fall Apart opens with the brutal murder of Texas attorney Sydney Hanover. Told from the point of view of a jealous husband who is initially identified as “Ken” (a nickname from his wife, Elaine, who he calls “Barbie”), he cites a shortlist of circumstantial evidence that Sydney and Elaine were having an affair before beating him to death with a tire iron. And for good measure, he finishes his work with a knife.
The task of solving the murder falls to rookie homicide detective Kit Hanover. Working under the tutelage of racist Detective Walt Shepard, who calls her Pocahontas (Kit’s biological parents are Native American), she witnesses the battered body floating in the lake and watches the autopsy – only to realize later that the victim is someone very close to her.
Despite being reassigned, Kit decides to work the case on her own time. While the decision is partly out of a desire to bring the killer to justice, she also wants to expose Shepard as an incompetent jerk. What she doesn’t realize is that the family’s suffering has only just begun. The killer isn’t simply content to punish one person. In the killer’s mind, the entire family must pay.
Author Alan Brenham wedges Kit into what can only be described as a crucible. While she doesn’t witness the entirety of Ken’s cruelty firsthand, she’s forced to deal with its psychological and emotional consequences at every turn. Perhaps because the killers’ basis for action is so illogical and misguided, the downstream effects of Ken’s crimes seem unnaturally rage-inducing. Perhaps that’s one aspect of what makes When Things Fall Apart such a page-turner. The other is Brenham’s careful exploration of personal identity, obsession, betrayal and ultimately, madness.