Book Review: Human Remains

Spoilers ahead!

My library copy of Human Remains by Elizabeth Haynes.

So, I kept my Elizabeth Haynes streak going and finished her third novel from 2013, Human Remains, recently.

The book follows Annabel, a police analyst, who discovers her neighbor’s decomposing body. But the book also follows Colin, who seems … a little off, to say the least. In addition, since the book is about people who are lonely and alone and whose remains remain undiscovered for days, weeks and months at a time, we also get little snippets from the perspectives of the deceased. I thought that was a lovely touch by Haynes.

I will say, Human Remains is much more of a slow burn than In the Darkest Corner was; it takes a moment to get going. I don’t mind slow burns. But if you’re looking for this one to grab you right away, it might not. I do think it’s worth sticking through the first quarter though because as Annabel, and a local journalist, Sam Edwards, work to uncover the throughline of these deaths and if there’s foul play involved, it gets much more intriguing.

Something I’m not typically a fan of, though, is diving too deep into a killer’s brain. We get that with Colin, first in subtle ways that indicate he’s a bit of a misanthrope and then obviously, as the book progresses, we learn he’s the one behind the deaths. He’s sort of an angel of death, if you will. Haynes depicts him as almost a Jack Kevorkian, aka Dr. Death, type. Someone who is merely enabling someone who wants to die … to die. It’s not exactly euthanasia, but it’s not exactly murder, either, although Kevorkian was convicted of murder.

But, of course, there’s more to Colin than what our unreliable narrative says about himself. He thinks he’s doing good and is righteous, but he’s indubitably a sociopath because like any sociopath, he gets off on it. He’s sexually aroused by the human remains, by the decomposition of humans and by dehumanizing them. That comes across in quite a few explicit ways throughout the book.

Moreover, it does seem like Colin is doing something to them. Yes, the people he targets are bereaved and downtrodden and perhaps suicidal as is, but he seems to be doing something to them where they have short-term amnesia. In fact, after her own mother dies, Annabel is targeted by Colin in a happy coincidence, and she seems to experience a drugged-like, dream state where he has complete control over her. I don’t understand how, if he’s only verbalizing things. It’s not hypnosis. So, what is it? He has to be drugging them, no? But Haynes never does explain that, which I was disappointed by that. In fact, I wanted it more explicitly stated that what Colin was doing was wrong, but he’s almost depicted as exactly what he thinks: that he’s doing good.

Annabel is a completely different character from Catherine In the Darkest Corner, at least pre-trauma Catherine. That is, Annabel is reserved, single, depicted as overweight and not particularly attractive and that she’s the loser among her work friends. She’s a loner and alone. Which is what makes her a perfect victim for Colin.

I did like the Annabel character, though, because she’s good at a her job and she cared about unraveling the mystery behind the spike in human remains found within the town. I did think she was unnecessarily abrasive to Sam, though. She seemed annoyed by him! Maybe I’m sympathetic to Sam because he’s a journalist, ha.

Fortunately when Colin does take Annabel as a would-be victim, Sam intervenes to save her life and get her back on the mend. That said, yet again, like In the Darkest Corner, it’s a man who saves the day and our protagonist.

Something I’ve learned from other writers about telling stories is that you can never have a character do something that seems out of character because it won’t ring true to the reader when it happens. That was the case I felt with the climax. Colin has fixated on the ex-girlfriend of one of his co-workers and kidnaps her. Upon realizing this, Sam and Annabel begin surveilling Colin at his home; Colin, who was inexplicably released by the police, mind you.

When Colin goes to the grocery store, Annabel concocts the plan where she will get herself intentionally taken by Colin again, so they can find out where the other woman is. What?! Up to this point in the book, Annabel has shown nothing like this sort of gumption and bravery. She’s been a reserved, by-the-book and quite frankly, timid character. I just didn’t buy that she would do this, and sure, Haynes writes that she’s doubting why she’s doing it along the way, but I’m not sure it worked.

Similar to In the Darkest Corner, we spend so much time reading about the dastardly thoughts and deeds of the antagonist, that the climax will never be able to live up to what he’s done. And it doesn’t here. In addition, and sorry to keep comparing to the previous book, but they’re similar themes I noticed, Colin ends up getting the last word (literally), as he develops relationships with people while in prison.

I don’t like the killers getting the last laugh!

Nonetheless, Haynes has a great idea here. One of the biggest fears among our species is dying, but more than that, dying and nobody noticing or caring. Dying alone. Forgotten about. That we didn’t do enough in life to get anyone to come to our funeral and remember and miss us. That’s what Haynes hones in on here in spectacular fashion. The execution misses in places by going to deep with Colin, the way he’s depicted as almost right in his actions and in Annabel’s surprising courage at the end, but overall, I enjoyed the book, it kept my attention, and I would recommend it to anyone.

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