Major, major spoilers. Read ahead only if you’ve read the book!
Phew, Charlie Donlea certainly set the bar high with his 2018 novel, Don’t Believe It, first with the title itself, and then, by not-so-slyly suggesting throughout the novel that he would have a more satisfying ending than Netflix’s 2015 docu-series, Making A Murderer or, The New York Times’s 2014 Serial podcast (heck of a time for true crime, huh?). I guess I shouldn’t have believed Donlea! And it’s difficult to say, because I’m probably supposed to be upset by the ending both on that meta level and then on the level of the story itself, but to the latter, I don’t think it works.
The premise of the novel is that Sidney Ryan, an enterprising documentarian, who has already helped to exonerate three people from prison, is asked by Grace Sebold to look into the murder she was convicted for while in Saint Lucia, an Eastern Caribbean island. She’s been imprisoned in Saint Lucia for 10 years, having been convicted of murdering her boyfriend, Julian, while on the island for another friend’s wedding. Julian was on the cusp of proposing to her, too. That set-up, by the way — an American seemingly wrongfully convicted of a murder of another American and imprisoned in a foreign country — had to be inspired by the Amanda Knox story. I thought about that immediately.
I was somewhat confused early on because Donlea kept calling it a documentary and a film, but it’s actually a docu-series akin to Making A Murderer, but the twist here that makes, The Girl of Sugar Beach a compelling docu-series pitch by Sidney for the network is that the docu-series is being made in real time. That is, each episode of the 10-episode series is made South Park-style, with Sidney still investigating, shooting, and editing the episodes together week-by-week. The show starts off with something like 2 million viewers, which to be fair, on a Friday night and in this day and age, is pretty solid. Donlea gets a little over his skis to make his point about how successful, The Girl of Sugar Beach, becomes as the series progresses, and word-of-mouth brings more viewers to the network to watch the docu-series. Because, yeah, 20 million people simply aren’t watching a network show on a Friday night anymore. That’s why I said that initial 2 million viewership was solid because most top shows on Friday nights on network television hit that mark. And certainly, 150 million Americans aren’t tuning in for a murder trial. TV just doesn’t work like that anymore for something like that. The Super Bowl is always the most-watched event on television every year, and it still only gets 100 million viewers (and about another 10 or so million through streaming)! But my nerdy digression aside, I take Donlea’s point that Sidney’s show being so successful put pressure on the American government and the Saint Lucian government to free an innocent woman once new evidence comes to light.
Also, just to offer two more nits to pick, I find it far-fetched that one documentarian has four exonerations to her record! And in this case, where even the Innocence Project, which is referenced a few times, couldn’t prevail. I also find it far-fetched that the impetus for Sidney’s interest in exonerations is that her own father was convicted for a murder which he said he didn’t commit. I would have preferred Sidney as a straight-laced ideologue wanting to correct the injustice system and be a steadfast truth-seeker. After all, that is how she frames herself to others: That she isn’t one of those true crime junkies trying to sensationalize a murder for a ratings grab or fame and fortune — although they are after ratings! — but she’s seeking the truth.
From the beginning, my suspicions for this page-turning whodunit came down to two people almost from the start of the book:
- Ellie, who was Grace’s best friend and who was the only other one who seemed to know about Julian’s plan to propose to Grace atop Gros Piton during the sunset. She is characterized as the classic “jealous friend” type, where the motive is, she doesn’t want anyone to have Grace — only she gets to have Grace, so she killed Julian upon learning his plans to propose, and killed Grace’s previous high school boyfriend in a similar manner (same weapon, same fall from a cliff to make it look like an accident). It was also mentioned that she’s rather tall, and investigators, as well as Sidney, were puzzled as to how someone of Grace’s height could have wielded the supposed murder weapon (a paddleboard oar) down on to someone taller than her. What was weird about this, though, is that nobody thought, “Maybe Julian was kneeling when he was struck?” so that height differences wouldn’t have mattered!
- Marshall, who is Grace’s younger brother, and who suffered a traumatic brain injury in high school when Ellie, Marshall and Grace were driving home from a night of drinking — we later come to find out that Grace was driving, not Ellie as previously thought (which I initially thought was another motive for Ellie: causing Marshall’s TBI because he knew about the first kill) — and was crashed into by a drunk driver. Marshall was also conceived, the thought goes, to save Grace, who had a rare form of leukemia and needed a bone marrow transplant. After the crash and resulting TBI, Marshall has lost some of his motor skills and brain functioning, and is basically in the care of his sister and their parents. While she’s in jail, he atrophies toward need of a wheelchair, and his parents strongly considering placing him in a care facility. The reason I suspected Marshall, albeit I admittedly saw it as a long-shot given his TBI, was that it was reinforced throughout the book that Marshall saw and heard things others didn’t because they underestimated him. So, who else would have known about Julian’s courtship and plans to propose to Grace other than Ellie? Marshall. And like Ellie, he also had that connection to Grace that nobody else could have her. And honestly, when reading whodunits, my brain almost always zeroes in on the character we’d least suspect, and that is the person with TBI in this book.
I never suspected that Grace was actually guilty, even when we’re introduced to former police detective, Gus, who worked the “accident” of Grace’s high school boyfriend’s death in 1999, and who believes that Sidney has gotten it wrong: That Grace killed Julian and this former boyfriend. Sidney starts suspecting it, too. Then she, like me, begins suspecting Ellie for the reasons I’ve outlined. The other reason I didn’t suspect Grace was because that would have been the “plot” of Making A Murderer, and Donlea was clearly going for something new!
As she’s close to figuring it out, Sidney returns to Ellie’s apartment where Marshall and Grace are staying for the time being, to interview Marshall some more. She thinks Marshall knows all the secrets. Instead, she realizes a.) the fancy chessboard he has was the murder weapon, and b.) Gus calls her to tell her that the footprint on Julian’s back to kick him off the cliff after he was bludgeoned was not only male (because of its size), but matched the same orthopedic shoes that Marshall wears. Marshall realizes Sidney knows and bludgeons her from behind with the chessboard, killing her.
That is the ending I talked about at the top of the review. You can’t kill Sidney! And even if you are going to kill Sidney, you can’t kill her in such a stupid manner! Sidney is too smart to a.) turn her back on someone she suspects of having previously murdered two people; and b.) at this point in his life, I don’t believe that Marshall has the physical capability of catching Sidney to even bludgeon her from behind. It just wasn’t believable, and so when I found out the chessboard shot killed her, I was like, come on!
But perhaps worse than that is what we learn about Grace: She knew the death of her high school boyfriend was no accident, as Marshall came to her to admit it, and she also knew Marshall killed Julian because he came to her bloodied with the murder weapon. The reason she covered for him, despite him having killed two people she loved (and threatened her to push a third would-be lover away), is because she felt guilty for being the reason he suffered a TBI at all. She also didn’t realize, at least not until the high school boyfriend was killed, and then she had to learn the lesson again with Julian, that the TBI had changed who Marshall was. The accident made him angry, a raging kind of angry. Murderously angry.
So, I can understand that Grace covered for him on those two murders, but here is what I don’t understand:
- Why would she proclaim her innocence to the murder of Julian, if she knew her brother did it and already covered for him? I mean, obviously she is innocent, but by proclaiming her innocence and actively working to overturn her conviction, that would necessarily turn attention to who could be the actual killer, which would necessarily lead back to Marshall. What was her motive or intention with proclaiming her innocence?
- Why does Grace cover for Marshall a third time, this time in the cover-up of Sidney’s death and apparently, is also willing to let Ellie take the fall for it this time? Grace was appreciative of Sidney helping to exonerate her. Why would she tarnish that appreciation by helping her brother cover-up her murder? I just didn’t believe that the Grace in the book, who went through what she went through, would do that. I think she finally would have reckoned with her brother’s TBI and turned him in. Instead, she didn’t, and worse yet, let her best friend take the fall.
And then, while I’m still rolling with my frustration at the ending, Gus makes no sense, either! It isn’t just a hunch, he had a crime lab look at the footprint proving that it was not just a male who kicked Julian from behind, but one with an orthopedic shoe! Why didn’t he bring that to the investigators and prosecutors when Ellie was charged with the crime? Why didn’t anyone apparently question where Marshall was when the crime occurred since he was staying with Grace in Ellie’s apartment? Wouldn’t Derek, Sidney’s producer, have known that she was visiting Marshall and he was the last person to see her alive, since he helped Sidney in her scheme to go see Marshall without Grace present?
Argh. I think Donlea go too cute with the ending. It was enough to make Marshall the killer of the two boyfriends without having him kill Sidney, and making Grace cover it up again. Two boyfriends killed, and 10 years in a foreign prison for a crime you didn’t commit is enough to atone for feeling like you caused the TBI, in my view.
All of my rantings aside, I’m still giving the book five stars on Goodreads, despite my frustrations, because I devoured this book largely in one day because it was compelling and had me wondering how it was going to end. I can’t knock a book that doesn’t quite land the ending the way I wanted it to. If you make me devour your book, mission accomplished.
If you’ve read the book, I would love to hear your thoughts on the nits I picked!
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