There’s something inherently fun about the idea of a true crime author like Gregg Olsen writing a fictional novel about a true crime author whose personal life becomes tangled up in the true crime case he’s researching. (Did everyone follow that?) It’s an easy hook for a novel, and a fun one at that – and that’s before Olsen essentially begins writing two books at once, alternating between the story of Kevin Ryan, struggling true crime writer, and the white trash love story turned violent that’s the subject of his latest novel.
And that’s all before the two start overlapping in messy, bloody ways, giving the book a great hook.
For all of that, though, Shocking True Story left me with a sense of “is that all?” by the end of it. That’s not to say that it’s not a fun read – I tore through it, and Olsen’s direct writing style and twisty plotting made that easy. And it’s not that the conceit doesn’t work, because it does, even without Olsen’s clever way of turning Ryan into a self-involved narcissist without ever coming out and being explicit about it. (Such a choice also allows Olsen to lampshade some of the concerns and criticisms of true crime, all while creating a character that represents both the best and worst sides of the genre.)
But ultimately, by the end of it all, Shocking True Story feels empty – as though what plot there was wasn’t enough to sustain the book. Even with essentially two books in one here, neither one ever comes to much of anything; the “true crime” story feels incomplete and insubstantial, and the murder plot that Ryan finds himself part of ultimately comes to a standard (and unsurprising) big reveal that sort of fizzles out. Indeed, even the possibility that Ryan is in danger of losing something or being blamed for it all doesn’t last long, as though the book didn’t have the patience to invest in that storyline. (Incidentally, this is one of the rare books where one of the red herrings Olsen presents would have been a far more interesting payoff than the one we got – always something you have to worry about with those.)
I didn’t hate Shocking True Story – it’s entertaining and fun, and it’s an easy read – but I definitely ended it feeling like what I got could have been a novella and lost nothing, or even better, extended and fleshed out into something much better. As it is, it’s a fine enough read, but one that won’t stick with you in any real way. Ask me in a week, and I’ll struggle to remember all that much about it.