Alex Michaelides burst on to the thriller scene with his well-received debut The Silent Patient. That book featured a psychotherapist doing his own investigating, competing narratives and a thread of Greek mythology. Given that worked for him once, Michaelides brings some of the same ingredients to bear in his follow up outing The Maidens.
Mariana Andros is a therapist who specialises in group sessions. It is unclear how those groups are formed or what the benefits are of this, particularly as the group that the reader is introduced to features a creepy stalker-like patient called Henry who does not seem to play well with others. Mariana is also still dealing with her own tragedy – the death of her husband Sebastian while the two were on holiday in her native Greece. While his death seems to have been an accident, Mariana cannot help attributing some of the blame to the gods Demeter and Persephone whose temple the two had visited. Before long Mariana is leaving her work behind to comfort her niece Zoe in Cambridge after her friend Tara has been killed in a gruesome killing.
Zoe talks Mariana into helping investigate the murder which all seems to be tied to her “dazzling” American Greek history professor Edward Fosca. Mariana immediately suspects Fosca and the strange group of female students he keeps around him who call themselves the Maidens. He also has a fondness for the same Greek gods that Mariana is obsessed with which pushes her grief buttons. But there are plenty of other suspects as Michaelides piles red herrings on red herrings to keep readers guessing. All leading up to a reveal which is both obvious, completely unearned and least believable solution to all of the mayhem.
Accidental detectives can be hard, particularly when there is also a police investigation on foot, and no indication there is anything wrong with that investigation. The author needs to find a way to get someone outside the investigation them access to crime scenes and suspects. As Marian herself considers:
She had no idea how to catch a murderer. She wasn’t a criminologist or forensic psychologist… All she had was an instinctive knowledge of human nature and human behaviour derived from years of working with patients.
This at least excuses all of the poor decisions that Mariana makes during her investigations but not why characters other than Zoe either ask her to help or abet her investigations.
The Maidens does give an atmospheric if slightly creepy view of Cambridge. From the arcane institutions of porters and bedders (essentially housekeepers), the dining halls and secret scholars gardens. The classic pubs and tea houses of the town all get namechecked.
The Maidens tries hard but there is little substance here. It is mainly the use of creepy atmospherics, multiple suspects and sleight of hand that keeps both the main character and the reader off balance until the dramatic but unearned reveal.