Those who pick up Jennifer Finney Boylan’s new novel, Long Black Veil, may be expecting a traditional horror story. The premise seems familiar at first glance, using well-loved tropes: A group of college students looking for fun accidentally get locked in the abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary, only to discover they aren’t alone. But Boylan, rather than focusing the story on who gets out alive that night in 1980, instead subverts the genre and focuses on identity, relationships and the human experience.
Alternating between 1980 and present day, Long Black Veil follows the six friends as the repercussions of that night send reverberations through the rest of their lives. In the present day, a body has been discovered in the walls of the prison, and Jon Casey, a famous chef who is haunted by the events of that night, has been arrested for the murder. The one man who could vouch for him has died, but an old friend, main character Judith Carrigan, has information that may be able to save him—though sharing it could mean losing her family and the life she has fought for.
Those familiar with Boylan’s bestselling memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders will be unsurprised by the dark humor and beautiful prose that drive the narrative. Boylan has crafted a plot full of whodunits, faked deaths and new identities, and delivered an elegant tale that does justice to both the high emotions of youth and the hardened regrets of middle age. Her pacing keeps the reader racing through time periods, life events and characters, eagerly flipping to the next chapter in an attempt to unravel the countless riddles the story offers. Fans of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History will find an equally engaging and erudite story full of references to classic literature and history.