Scribner/Simon & Schuster, $26.00, 273 pages, ISBN 978-1-4767-7458-9
This novel should have been read and featured months ago, but . . . confession time . . . the title was kind of a turn-off. I couldn’t have been more wrong. My Mother was right when she said, “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover, Honey.” It had to do with a novel she bought for my eighth birthday. She didn’t check it out, thought it was a cowboy yarn of the Will James kind, for young boys and girls. Turned out to be more of the Erskine Caldwell type for big girls and boys, and I learned a lot of new words I shouldn’t’ve before Ma took it away.
The Hand That Feeds You, by A.J. Rich sets a new, and awesomely-high bar for psychological thrillers in my humble opinion. Maybe because it was written as a collaborative effort by two acclaimed writers: Amy Hempel and Jill Clement. Hence the A.J. part of the nom de plume, and no idea where or how they derived the last name . . . an uncle maybe? (Sorry. I know it’s lame. Couldn’t resist . . . )
The basis of the story is deceit and betrayal. It begins when an accomplished young woman named Morgan Prager comes home from classes where she’s working toward her PhD thesis in victim psychology to find her live-in lover—the man named Bennett she just got engaged to and has a big diamond ring to prove it—mauled to death. Her three dogs, a Great Pyrenees she raised from a pup and a pair of rescued Pit Bulls are all covered in gore. There’s blood tracked everywhere and the three dogs are hyperactive. Hysterical, stunned by the violence, Morgan fears she’s guilty of something known as pathological altruism: doing more harm than good through the selfless act of adopting the two rescue dogs. One dog is shot dead by a responding police officer, the Great Pyrenees and surviving Pit Bull are impounded and put on death row at the Humane Society. They’re to be euthanized after being used as evidence in the legal proceedings surrounding Bennett’s horrific murder. Then Bennett turns out to be an imposter who’s been deceiving Morgan and everyone else, as other fiancés turn up, some living, some dead. Who, and what, was this man calling himself Bennett, why is Morgan a victim and can she ever figure out what happened the day he was killed, because Morgan cannot make herself believe that her gentle dogs would ever do such an evil act.
The stress, tension and propulsive nature of the plot make this novel almost impossible to put down once begun. It’s a conundrum from the start because Morgan just can’t accept that she’s been so thoroughly duped by everything and everyone she’s ever loved; and the writers are able to keep that slight hope alive until the stunning denouement, when the conclusion you’ll never, ever, see coming is revealed. The Hand That Feeds You is a masterpiece of psychology and skullduggery, brilliant and though provoking as well . . . you’ll find yourself re-examining and re-evaluating what you think you know about shelters and shelter animals. I just wish they’d pick a different title. That said, I’m going to hop right in and read the next A.J. Rich novel I see . . . no matter what the title is!