The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse was the Reese Witherspoon’s book club pick for February, 2021 and everyone knows her book club picks are complex and well-deserving of the honour. I read The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware and The Guest List by Lucy Foley, after finding out, that they had Reese Witherspoon’s seal of approval. Both were interesting thrillers. The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse lives up to the high bar set by such remarkable storylines.
The book is about a series of murders in a hotel, that used to be a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in the 1920s and 1930s. Back then, pure clean fresh air was touted to be the cure for tuberculosis, till the advent of antibiotics. We follow an emotionally worn-out detective try and put the pieces together to make sense of the macabre nature of the murders. Having read emotionally infallible detectives like Sherlock and Poirot, reading about Elin, the protagonist, struggle to overcome her prior failure is a refreshing and humane take on the subject. Her detective skills, come back quickly, despite her break from work and one can’t help but be proud of her and root for her success. Like the King or Queen of Narnia, once a detective, always a detective.
But the true success of the book lies in the depiction of the scenes and the visual imagery it conjures up, in the mind of the reader. The scenic Alps of the Swiss, the snow falling against the windows, the blue skyline; the author paints a pretty picture in the beginning of the story. She also paints an equally horrifying picture with the exact same elements and this duality adds a Gothic horror element to the book, almost along the lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of the Hill House. The atmospheric setting is so crucial, one may call it a seperate character; it definitely influences the story like an actual character. The grotesque nature of the murders, the masks on the victims and the unnerving atmosphere make this book a very eerie read. Even a movie, could not capture such visual elements, so effortlessly yet so vividly.
As continuous readers of this blog know (Are there any readers???), I am partial to fast-moving plots and scenarios that aren’t immediately obvious. And this book is structured so well, such that each chapter is short yet ends in a new and unprecedented development. The story continuously moves forward, either revealing more about the characters or more about the murders. In this aspect, it’s one of the fastest, edge-of-the-seat thrillers that I have read. Even the epilogue ends in a cliffhanger, paving way for the second book (could it be related to the Haylor case, the one she failed to solve, or could it be something totally unrelated?).
To conclude, this chilling, atmospheric book about murders in an isolated hotel far away from civilisation is a must read for crime buffs and horror enthusiasts. It is unpredictable and fast-paced. I read the book in three days and that’s because, they were working days. If a book keeps me on my toes, I will finish it as quickly as possible. It’s hard to believe that such a succinctly written book is the product of a first time author. It is perfect, with all the necessary distractions for the reader and all the right cliffhangers. I look forward to more works from this author, especially her second book in this series. Once in a while, we come across a book that enthralls us, demanding our rapt attention and engulfing our minds and such a book makes everything else worthwhile. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton was one such book. Sarah Pearse’s debut novel is another. (https://musicmoviesandmurder.wordpress.com/2020/10/28/the-seven-deaths-of-evelyn-hardcastle/)