The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

A locked-room murder mystery that takes place on a snowed-in mountain in the Swiss Alps? Yes please. The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse was a slow-burning, atmospheric thriller that kept me reading straight through.

Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Mini Plot Summary

Elin Warner – a detective on leave after a devastating error in judgment – and her boyfriend travel to Le Sommet – a former sanatorium turned luxury hotel high in the Swiss Alps – to celebrate the engagement of Elin’s brother. Elin and her brother Isaac have a strained relationship – if you can even call it a relationship. But she plans to make the best of it – after all, she and her boyfriend deserve a break from real life, and from Elin’s anxiety and grief. Soon after they arrive, Isaac’s fiancée Laure goes missing… and then a body turns up. And then another. As a dangerous storm closes off access to the hotel, and amid the pileup of bodies and the threat of an unknown killer, Elin must put her self-doubt and anxiety aside to find who’s responsible.

image from amazon.com

What I Liked About This Book: I am a sucker for atmosphere, and this book had it in spades. The isolation of the hotel… the fact of its history as a sanatorium… the turbulent, ominous weather… it all added up to a really deliciously creepy backdrop for a murder mystery. 

Elin’s story was really enjoyable. She has A Past, as so many protagonists do, and the way Pearse weaves her history and its aftershocks into the present-day plot felt (mostly) believable and well-done. 

The sanatorium itself, with its spare décor and hanging monuments to its clinical past, was such an unsettling and delightfully creepy character. And I loved how Pearse dropped us into the rotten core of the building’s own dark history.

What I Didn’t Like About This Book: Because I was reading on a Kindle, I was able to pinpoint exactly when this book stopped working for me. It was at the 93% mark, right about when the villain was revealed. The reveal felt… false to me, somehow. I tried to talk myself out of feeling this way: The backstory, the motivation, both seemed like acceptable justification for the villain’s actions… but they also felt a little flat to me. Not necessarily because the Inciting Incident in the villain’s past is a common provocation (and common trope), but because it just felt so removed from the actual crime. Or maybe… the breadth and specificity of the crime. 

One thing that wore on me a little bit was Elin’s pervasive self-doubt. Self-doubt is a completely relatable emotion! I love self-doubt as a protagonist’s fatal flaw! But the way Pearse executed it felt a little flat. Like… it was both overemphasized and yet wasn’t as evident as I felt it should be? For instance, Elin’s actions seemed so opposite to how she felt about herself that I wasn’t sure how to resolve the discrepancy. Maybe if she’d had more physical manifestations of her anxiety (rather than just the occasional need for her inhaler) I would have bought it more. Or if she’d shown more purposefulness in pushing past her self-doubt, rather than sort of floating along just because she felt that was what was expected of her. This is a small criticism, though, and didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book.

I also felt like there was a missed opportunity to make use of the other characters stranded with Elin. The pool of potential villains was pretty small, which made it easy to guess who it was. The other left-behind guests ended up feeling shadowy, like stage props rather than real, vivid players in the story.

Lastly, I know that it is part and parcel of murder mysteries to point the finger in one direction when you should be looking elsewhere. But Pearse paid a lot of attention to making one particular character look suspicious… and it felt disingenuous. She ended up explaining it, which helped… but I still felt intentionally misled – and in a way that was slightly irritating, because it was so obvious that this person wasn’t the villain that it was almost insulting to imply that anyone might think they were.

The epilogue came completely out of the blue for me. I am eager to read the next book, to figure out how it ties in with what I just read… but I found it to be a moment of discord in my reading experience.

Should You Read This Book? Despite the disappointment I felt during the last quarter or so of this book, I really enjoyed most of it. The hostile environment outside, the indifferent cold of the hotel itself, and the constant, pressing fear of what would happen next all really worked to keep me engaged and compelled me forward. If you like closed-room mysteries, settings with loads of atmosphere, and complicated main characters, I think you’ll really get a kick out of this one.

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