BookBrowse Reviews Windhall by Ava Barry

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Windhall

by Ava Barry

Windhall by Ava Barry X
Windhall by Ava Barry
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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Mar 2021, 368 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2022, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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Ava Barry's debut novel Windhall features a decades-old murder and a modern-day copycat that pushes an investigative journalist to solve a cold case from Hollywood's Golden Age.

Ava Barry's debut mystery novel Windhall is centered around the salacious murder of a starlet named Eleanor Hayes during Hollywood's Golden Age in the 1940s. At the time of her death, Hayes is a household name and embodies the glamour and beauty of the era, especially in films directed by her friend and fellow star, Theodore Langley. When Theo is accused of murdering Eleanor at Windhall, his Hollywood estate, it becomes the crime of the century. In the present day, Max Hailey was raised on stories of Hollywood and its bygone decadence, and his interest in the Eleanor Hayes case sparked his career in investigative journalism. Although Theo went to trial for the murder, he was never convicted. Hailey is certain Theo is guilty, and when a local art student is found dead within sight of Windhall, wearing a dress just like the one Hayes died in, he decides to prove it once and for all. As he uses his connections and his questionable morals to work the case, he finds himself pulled into a web of lies and danger decades in the making. Windhall is a complex, vivid murder mystery that will be especially fascinating to readers who share Max Hailey's interest in Golden Age Hollywood.

The murder of Eleanor Hayes is the mystery at the heart of this novel. Barry keeps the plot moving effectively while slowly and subtly revealing the clues necessary for determining what actually happened that fateful night in 1948. As Hailey discovers a seemingly unending trail of secrets, he's forced to reexamine his thoughts on the case. The reader, however, has no preconceived notions as to what happened, and so may be able to spot things that Hailey initially misses. That doesn't mean the mystery is easy to solve. Barry plays things close to the vest, and her penchant for clever twists will keep even the most seasoned mystery readers on their toes.

Unfortunately, the intricate nature of the mystery does come at the cost of character development. Although the main characters do have some depth, this is very much a plot-driven novel. Barry gives us a fair amount of background for Hailey — raised by his grandmother, knowledgeable about old Hollywood, good at his job — but he still doesn't feel quite like a real person. There are a few aspects of Hailey's past that are mentioned repeatedly without ever being fully explained, such as his conviction for arson as a teenager, and he lacks real connections with his friends, who feel more like assistants or convenient sidekicks than real companions. Interestingly, Barry seems to give the most thorough character development to Theo. The narrative includes various excerpts from his journals, and these snippets, along with other evidence and Hailey's extensive background knowledge, make Theo feel like the most realistic character in the novel. It's unclear whether Barry intentionally developed her characters in such a way as to give Theo, already a mythic figure at the start of the story, such a larger-than-life presence, but the underdevelopment of Hailey's personality and relationships comes at the cost of establishing a true connection between the protagonist and the reader.

The author does provide a significant, vivid sense of setting, however. As Hailey chases down clues, he finds himself traipsing across Los Angeles and viewing numerous locations that were or are famous in Hollywood, and he almost always takes the time to describe these locales and their importance to the film industry and various actors and actresses (some fictional, some real). Although this has the potential to slow the plot, instead it creates a more comprehensive picture of the grandeur and the influence of the stars of the past and expands the world-building established through Theo's journals and Hailey's stories. Additionally, much like the grand manor Manderley in Daphne du Maurier's novel Rebecca, Windhall is essentially a character in its own right. The estate is extensively described during Hailey's visits and in his research, and it stands as both a place of mystery and as a symbol of Eleanor's murder. Taken together, these descriptions create a thorough, detailed image of 1940s Los Angeles and further serve to build up the epic status of Old Hollywood and the power that resided in the era's celebrities, a theme that is also relevant to the present-day copycat murder.

Windhall is a fast-paced, cleverly-plotted murder mystery that exalts the opulence of Hollywood's Golden Age while also exposing the dark side of the era's studios and the damaging, sometimes deadly, consequences to those who defied the powerful elites. Although the novel does suffer from a lack of character development, the detailed descriptions give the reader a comprehensive picture of the time and place, and Hailey's efforts to solve the Eleanor Hayes mystery keep the plot moving. The skillful way in which the clues are laid out will keep even the most well-read mystery fans guessing, and the story's final twist provides a surprising and satisfying conclusion. Barry's debut is an intriguing tale that will leave readers wondering what she'll come up with next.

Reviewed by Jordan Lynch

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2021, and has been updated for the January 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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