Mysteries aren’t my favorite genre. The writing has to be really tight throughout the story — including the ending — for it to be successful. Too often, I find mysteries that hold my interest in the first three-quarters will fall apart at the end because of predictability, implausibility, or both. Let’s just say, this one wasn’t the book that made me change my mind about mysteries.
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore caught my eye on the shelf because, well, I like books about books. I’m meta like that. This is author Matthew Sullivan’s debut novel and it’s set in Denver in the 1990s. We find out right away that a regular patron of the Bright Ideas Bookstore — a young man named Joey Molina — has died by suicide right there in the store, hanging himself in the upstairs room. Our protagonist and reluctant sleuth is Lydia, a bookseller at the shop, to whom Joey left his possessions despite her not knowing him particularly well. Lydia begins to unravel the mystery of Joey’s life as she sorts through the things in his apartment and we soon learn that Lydia has her own traumatic backstory to tell. While learning more about Joey’s past she begins to relive her own, complete with people she’d long since cut from her life suddenly resurfacing.
I’ll start with the good: The backdrop of Denver was richly drawn and the cast of supporting characters were fun and eccentric. The plot moved along nicely, and the phrase “page turner” would truly apply here, particularly as we dig into Lydia’s past and the terrifying Hammerman killer. The twists and turns of Joey’s past were intriguing and the reader really gets taken along for the ride alongside Lydia, hoping to find answers as to why this troubled young man died in such a sad and horrific manner.
Now, the not-so-good: Lydia is not a likable character. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt because she survived a truly traumatizing childhood tragedy but she’s insufferably introverted about it, even towards her kind and supportive boyfriend who keeps getting pushed farther and farther from her life. Also, the mysteries (there are two here: Lydia’s backstory and Joey’s) start out suspenseful and it’s fun to watch Lydia follow the trail of breadcrumbs, but if I’m being honest it felt a little contrived. Joey’s belongings that he leaves behind for Lydia send her on a scavenger hunt that’s just a little too tidy and well-constructed. The Hammerman killer is fairly obvious and the epilogue felt rushed.
It was a good mystery, not a great one. It’s a quick read at only 352 pages and a fun puzzle to solve. Until you’ve actually solved the puzzle and you have to slog through the final hundred pages of Lydia’s angsty inner monologue. But if you were an angsty 90’s book nerd, maybe it’ll be fun nostalgia for you.