A fun Knives Out-esque murder mystery

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Suddenly a Murder has one of the best YA thriller hooks I’ve ever read and, for the most part, successfully delivers on its Knives Out meets Jazz Age locked-room murder mystery pitch. As with most YA thrillers, the set-up for the story requires a pretty extreme suspension of belief, and I found Suddenly’s circumstances to be completely improbable, but it made for good entertainment nevertheless. Seven just-graduated high school teens vacation to the island of Ashwood Manor, where their 1920’s role-play party takes a deadly turn when secrets, grievances, and hidden agendas boil to the service and one is murdered. The cast of characters were all fantastic, and while I didn’t really buy into all of them being the potential murderer, their private lives all played critical roles that further complicated the web of secrets and added some much-needed nuance to the victim.

The most interesting part was the main character, Izzy. Though I hesitate to count her as an unreliable narrator, the fact that she was the one who brought the murder weapon to the remote island continuously heightened my intrigue and kept me speeding through the pages. Her backstory is also fantastic, and I appreciate how Muñoz elevated her beyond the typical BIPOC, low-income archetype that is so common in YA thrillers. Izzy serves as a gateway for Muñoz to tackle several important social issues, chief among them immigration/deportation and caring for a neurodiverse/disabled relative. However, Izzy’s background as a journalist felt underexplored and some aspects of her character felt very underdeveloped, such as her all-consuming crush on another character and reasons/motives for her conflict-averse personality.

Like Izzy, Muñoz elevates all her characters beyond simple archetypes and explores various topics relevant to the teen/high-school experience that I rarely see discussed in YA thrillers despite the setting. It was incredibly refreshing to read about sexual activity and STDs, drug culture and accidental ODs, and the pressures on teens to maintain certain public images in order to fit in. While the characters occasionally felt too one-dimensional (a result of being plot devices to discuss the above social issues), I was invested in all of them and found their actions believable.

Where Suddenly a Murder leaves me wanting more is the pacing and structure of the mystery. For about 75% of the book, chapters alternate between first-person present-tense from Izzy’s POV and third-person past-tense from all six POVs. While I understood that the third-person chapters were supposed to function as flashback, the sheer volume of them (every other chapter) felt abrupt and interrupted the flow of Izzy’s present narrative. Furthermore, the flashback scenes weren’t all in chronological order, so it made it extremely difficult to keep track of six different timelines plus Izzy’s present one. I think the book did benefit from the inclusion of the flashbacks, but cutting down on the number would have done wonders for the narrative coherence and cohesiveness. I was invested in all of the characters’ subplots and felt they explored some really relevant issues, but splitting half the book (the flashbacks) amongst six characters was just too much in my opinion. The end result was just a bit too messy and surface-level, especially since all narrators have complicated backstories that felt underexplored due to the pressure of distributing the book between everyone.

Additionally, the actual murder mystery aspect felt lacking. Izzy obtains clues too conveniently to be semi-believable, and while the reveal of the murderer is interesting, it’s not wholly shocking. The ultimate resolution felt too sudden and heavy-handed in terms of foreshadowing, but I appreciate that Muñoz left it somewhat open-ended in order to emphasize the twisted circumstances leading to the murder. I would have liked one or two more chapters exploring the full fall-out/consequences of the murder, as well as wrapping up what happens to the rest of the group (the acquitted kind of just disappear off the page and the reader is left assuming everything’s fine).

Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed Suddenly a Murder and would recommend it to fans of Knives Out and Agatha Christie’s locked room murder mysteries. While it required a huge suspension of belief, the pacing of Izzy’s present narrative kept me hooked throughout and Muñoz does an admirable job of tackling social issues I rarely see represented in YA thrillers.

3/5 stars

Thank you to NetGalley and Razorbill (Penguin Young Readers) for the e-ARC! All thoughts and opinions are my own.