Mysteries: Tom Nolan, 7/26/14

Theresa Battle [is] the low-achieving narrator—”Smart people exhaust me,” she says—of Emily Arsenault’s introspective, eccentric, charming contemporary mystery “What Strange Creatures” (Morrow, 366 pages, $14.99). Divorced, childless, apolitical and unsocial, the 35-year-old Theresa lavishes her love and wit on her often-apathetic pets and her equally underachieving older brother Jeff, while malingering through her seventh or eighth year of work on her unfinished dissertation about a female medieval mystic (“almost certainly a nut job,” Theresa concludes).

But Theresa is jolted from midlife lethargy when Jeff’s girlfriend is murdered—and he is arrested. Discouraged by the efforts of the local police, Theresa tries to solve the case on her own. What was behind the victim’s efforts to accumulate embarrassing material on a former local prosecutor now running for the U.S. Senate? What connections are there among some of the candidate’s old convictions and this new victim? And what if Theresa’s brother, who experiences drunken blackouts, turns out to have more to do with this homicide than he’s saying—or even remembers?

The book’s past and present mysteries are intriguing, but what kept this reader hooked was the acerbic and unpredictable Theresa Battle, who swings into action like a deadpan New England version of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. She enlists the intellectual aid of her campus’s star writing professor (“he was the pride of the English department and I was its shame”), romances the dead woman’s male buddy in order to snoop in his computer (“Strong, determined, but soft on the finish. A pinot noir of a kiss”), and cases scenes with a wan and knowing eye (“Raymond Realty was one of those sad little offices with worn beige carpeting and a gumball machine full of ancient Chiclets”).

Along the way, she shares offbeat personal opinions like popcorn. (“To me, patent leather ought to be off-limits to any grown man who’s not either getting married or doing magic tricks.”) Beneath her sardonic surface is an insecure, self-critical soul raised in a family of disappointment-expecters: “We’re Battles. What chance did we have?”
full article from the Wall Street Journal


Crime: Marilyn Stasio, 7/20/14

Emily Arsenault’s mysteries are so much fun you hardly notice they’re essentially academic novels. Theresa Battle, the neurotic narrator of WHAT STRANGE CREATURES, has been a Ph.D. candidate for so long that the new department chairwoman issues a deadline for her dissertation on Margery Kempe. Theresa is the first to admit that this medieval mystic “was absolutely an eccentric and almost certainly a nut job,” but the bond between scholar and subject is one of the joys of this quirky book. Another is Theresa’s affectionate relationship with her sweet but peculiar brother, Jeff.
full article from the New York Times


Fiction Reviews, 5/12/14

Captivating . . . Arsenault deftly blends pet humor and laugh-out-loud moments with the unfolding portrait of complex, multi-layered Kim . . . Theresa’s self-deprecating honesty and anecdotes about her dissertation subject, medieval mystic Margery Kempe, are as engaging as her loyalty to her brother and willingness to face unsavory truths about him and herself. (Aug.)
full article from Publishers Weekly


What We’re Reading, July 20, 2014

In Emily Arsenault’s often hilarious What Strange Creatures, Theresa is stuck in a rut. A perpetual thesis candidate, she’s had a string of bad breakups, is trapped in a soul-sucking job as a copywriter at a candle company and is concerned she’s turning into a crazy cat lady. And now, her brother’s flaky girlfriend, Kim, has left her with her overweight and forever-barking puggle.

But her world is shaken up in the most disastrous of ways when Kim’s body is found in the woods. Her sweet, smart and troubled brother, Jeff, is the prime suspect, and Theresa knows he had nothing to do with it. Yet, as she follows the bizarre trail of lies and political scandal Kim left behind, she begins to worry. Has love caused her turn to a blind eye to her brother’s increasingly worrisome issues?

A well-crafted mystery, What Strange Creatures is also an exploration of familial love and the way others perceive us. The first-person narrative allows the reader to follow Theresa’s heartbreaking struggle to keep her doubt in Jeff’s innocence, as well as her very typical mid-30s existential insecurities, at bay. And truly, I did not see this conclusion of this murder mystery coming.
full article from Book Page


Fiction Review, September 2014

This is the story of the Battle family. What you would call a very dysfunctional clan, the Battles dwell in Thompsonville, Massachusetts, living quiet, boring lives. However, when a cold-blooded murder happens too close to home, this dysfunctional family literally becomes their last name—battling to save one of their own from the cellblock.

It’s Theresa Battle who is having a difficult time. She’s been struggling to write a dissertation she may never finish, the way she’s going. Theresa has just offered to dog-sit for her brother’s girlfriend, Kim Graber, who is a local waitress. Theresa already has a houseful of pets, but doing this chore will not be a problem. Her daily routine includes her job, which is copywriting for a local candle making company. Not the most exciting existence, but Theresa has always stated that the Battles are used to disappointment. Especially when it comes to her brother, Jeff. To Theresa, he is the absolute definition of a loser. But she must ask herself if the loser that annoys her so much could actually be a murderer.

When Kim Graber’s body is discovered, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that points straight to Jeff as being the killer, and he is thrown in jail and immediately charged. Although the Battles aren’t exactly buddies, they are blood. Using everything she can find to prove her brother’s innocence, Theresa listens to Kim’s coworkers and unravels a great many mysteries. As Theresa moves forward, her gut instinct seems to be correct. Blaming her brother was too quick an answer, and as Theresa digs, she unearths the fact that Kim was trying to discredit a local ‘big wig’ that she shared a history with, as well as many other suspects with some seriously dark secrets.
This book is filled with humor, which is somewhat unusual in a mystery/thriller, but a great thing to behold. The dialogue is very smartly written, and the plot is one you will stick to until the very end.

– Reviewed by Mary Lignor, Professional Librarian and Co-Owner of The Write Companion for Suspense Magazine


John Valeri, 9/2/14

With What Strange Creatures, Emily Arsenault has crafted an engaging literary mystery that surpasses the realm of the traditional whodunit by exploring the relationship dynamics that inform who we are, what we do, and why we do it—and particularly those of siblings. Every bit as complex and satisfying as her earlier efforts, this one also marks a foray into new territory (legal matters, political intrigue) while maintaining some of the quirky elements from books prior: academia, music, and obscure historical figures among them. The evolution of this author has been impressive, indeed. Her potential is infinite …
full review