Book review: Murder on the online express in the dating app mystery
By Jane Pek
Mystery/Vintage/Paperback/354 pages/$28.82/Released February 22, pre-order here
4 out of 5
“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death,” wrote British playwright Oscar Wilde.
Singaporean Jane Pek considers both types of mystery in her debut novel, a complex and knotty whodunit that links online dating to murder.
Its heroine, Claudia Lin, works at Veracity, a New York detective agency that investigates online dating profiles, verifying for clients whether their potential dates are who they claim to be.
Claudia is a lover of classic literature – “you must be the only millennial in the world to trust romantic advice from the Middle Ages”, complains her roommate after citing Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife Of Bath dating advice to him – and a passionate greedy mystery.
She is obsessed with Inspector Yuan’s mystery novels, which are set in ancient China, and constantly wonders, “What would Inspector Yuan do?”
She also excels at keeping secrets from her family.
Her mother, a Taiwanese immigrant who single-handedly raised three children, doesn’t know that Claudia has given up her lucrative career in finance to play detective or that all efforts to match her with a nice Chinese boy are in vain because she prefers girls.
Enter Iris Lettriste, a Veracity client with her own hidden agenda.
When Iris is found dead, Claudia can’t help but investigate, even as her enigmatic boss Komla and acerbically skilled colleague Becks warn her to leave the matter alone.
As Claudia digs deeper, she begins to realize that even Veracity might not be what it seems.
The plot begins slowly and gradually deepens in complexity. It forces Pek to juggle multiple balls at once — murder mystery, immigrant family drama, and questioning the ethics of dating apps — and it’s impressive that she keeps them all in the air, although some pay more than others.
The jargon-laden debates about the privacy pitfalls of social media are heightened by the emotional weight of Claudia’s scenes with her family, whether she’s being blamed by her mother for not visiting more often or bickers with her overachieving brother Charles and handsome yet insecure sister Coraline.
Can an algorithm really find you love? Or does it preselect your choices and, in doing so, rationalize and orchestrate your desires?
“Impossible to verify”, says one character, “since we can never know what they failed to show us, and therefore over time what they present to us – what they want us to want – becomes what we want.”
It utterly empties the romance of this one. Maybe it’s best to let love remain a mystery – you might never find the answer, but it’s so exciting to solve.
If you like this, read: Dial A For Aunties by Jesse Q. Sutanto (Berkley, 2021, $19.80, buy here, borrow here). Photographer Meddelin Chan hopes to retire from the wedding planning business run by her mother and three aunts. But when she accidentally murders her creepy date, they’re the ones who show up to help hide the body – while simultaneously trying to plan a lavish resort wedding.