- Publish Date
- Thursday, 19 January 2017, 12:05PM
- By Stephanie Jones
Teen angst meets bloody murder in The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman, Mindy Mejia’s heady novel about a precocious actress whose final performance is as a real-life corpse. Before being found stabbed and disfigured in an abandoned barn in her hometown of Pine Valley, Minnesota, Hattie attempted to escape to the bright lights of New York City’s theatre district, but her youth, discomposure, and wad of hundred-dollar bills drew questions from airport workers, and the half-formed plan failed.
The novel unfolds in March and April 2008, as Sheriff Del Goodman, a long-time friend of Bud and Mona Hoffman, investigates the killing of their only daughter, and in 2007, when Hattie was winning the attention of audiences, as Jane Eyre, and the admiration of her Advanced English teacher, Peter Lund, who regards her as his favourite and most promising student.
Peter, who at 26 is not much older than the high-school seniors, is a reluctant transplant from Minneapolis. His wife Mary has led their return to care for her mother, Elsa, as she succumbs to congestive heart failure, and the combined oppressions of the Reever family farm and Elsa’s hostility to her son-in-law are tarnishing Peter and Mary’s formerly happy coupledom.
Suspects are few but obvious: Tommy Kinakis, the well-meaning but dim jock Hattie was dating, and Peter himself, after evidence emerges of online discussions between teacher and student. Del’s diligence as a detective is hampered by the lack of a murder weapon and the snail’s pace of the laboratory assigned to test DNA found at the scene. Not on the list is Winifred Erickson, the widow on whose land the murder takes place. Winifred fatally shot her husband while, she told authorities, aiming for a coyote that was killing her chickens. The death was ruled accidental, and Winifred got a $500,000 life insurance payout.
There is never any reason to doubt that the good sheriff, a childless divorcé who regarded Hattie as his own daughter, and indeed, the murder mystery, while handled with aplomb by Mejia, is not where this vivid story shines brightest. It is difficult to describe the high emotion of The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman without issuing spoilers, but Mejia exhibits great tenderness in her treatment of a singular teenage girl, ripe with intelligence and distracted by longing, whose self-absorption is her undoing. Watching Hattie act, yearn, speak, and live is almost unbearably poignant, and in another genre, her whip-smart and unapologetically ambitious persona would make for a charismatic girl detective, a Miss Marple for the millennial set.
But this is not that story, and Del must consult with every potential witness in order to tighten his net. Hattie’s schoolmates speak darkly of the curse of “the Scottish play” – Hattie performed the role of Lady Macbeth on the evening she was killed – while Peter, under standard questioning, alludes to Hattie’s unsettling acuity: “[S]he could peg you with a glance.” Though accustomed to using literature for solace and guidance, there is nothing to spare Peter his singular ordeal.
“Sometimes I think acting is a disease”, Hattie muses at one point, as if knowing her talent is not an unvarnished blessing. Is she a victim or perpetrator, empath or sociopath? Mejia lets the reader decide. Certainly, the novel, whose bucolic setting only amplifies the horrors that unfold within, heralds a thrilling talent in fiction.
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