“56 Days” Has the Worst Twist Ending I’ve Ever Read

“56 Days” by Catherine Ryan Howard [Corvus, 2021]

Wandering the show floor on the last day of London Book Fair, my friends and I came past the Corvus stall. On top of one of their shelves, there was a small stack of books, a few packs of popcorn and a piece of A4 that had ‘free please take’ scrawled across it in permanent marker.

Earlier that day we’d seen the massive tube ad for “56 Days” by Catherine Ryan Howard. And as if by fate, there it was – 2 copies in the stack of free books.

My friend and I took one copy each (and like four bags of popcorn).

Well, mistakes were made. “56 Days” is incredibly mediocre – for about 300 pages. And then it becomes eye-roll inducingly awful.

The premise: 56 days ago in Dublin, 20-something Ciara met & started dating 20-something Oliver. 3 weeks before the 1st Covid-19 lockdown. Things were going well, and they decided to move in together when lockdown started because they’re both new to Dublin and don’t want to be stuck totally alone in a city they aren’t familiar with. It’s only going to be a couple weeks anyway, right?

But he has a secret…and 56 days after they meet, a dead body is found in his apartment.

I know, maybe I only have myself to blame.

I’ve made a point of (mostly) avoiding pandemic-centric media, because 1) too soon, guys 2) it’s a gimmick. Gimmicks very seldom lead to quality, especially when it comes to books.

But I’m broke and I found a free book, what the hell.

If I’d paid for this mess, I’d be pissed off. Since it was free, I’m just annoyed that lazy books like this not only get published but sell well.

SPOILERS from here, but seriously don’t read this book. I’m just here to vent.

First of all, maybe most importantly, a Bridgerton Buzzfeed quiz has more depth than any character in this book. Ciara & Oliver and Lee & Karl (the officers investigating the dead body found in Oliver’s shower) are cliches at best and literally nothing more than names attached to dialogue & exposition at worst.

Lee & Karl’s tired ‘veteran buddy cop’ dynamic is somehow the best part of the book. Not in a ‘haha this is actually funny writing’ way, in a ‘ah yes, I too have seen a few episodes of Vera’ nostalgia-inducing way.

Ciara and Oliver have absolutely no chemistry. Their entire relationship is a couple lines of painfully basic sarcastic banter, followed by Howard inexplicably skipping hours & hours of their interactions and expecting us to buy (or care) that they’re falling for each other.

But this isn’t a romance novel. It’s a crime thriller. Who cares about good characters, or dialogue that doesn’t read like a parody sketch? We’re here for a tense whodunit, grizzly murder, a compelling crime of passion. Give us plot damnit.

None of that is here.

No instead, we get a meandering procession of super-relatable #justpandemicthings, each mask reference or awkward trip to the supermarket falsely thinking it’s more poignant than the last. Be a pandemic book if you want to be a pandemic book – just don’t carry yourself like you’re the voice of a generation writing about wiping down a box of cereal with anti-bacterial wipes.

What little narrative there is gets split between present day with Lee & Karl investigating the body – which we’re led to believe from very early on is Oliver’s – and the 56 days leading up to it’s discovery.

The past narrative jumps between Ciara & Oliver’s perspective, annoyingly repeating huge sections. Seriously, at least a quarter of this book is a word-for-word copy of something we’ve already read from the other’s perspective, with some exposition heavy differences in narration sprinkled in.

Oliver has a secret – we don’t know what it is for most of the book, but we know he spent his teen years in prison after the ‘Mill River Case’ (barely more inventive than calling it ‘Rivergate’).

Because of this he uses a fake last name, has no internet presence, and literally only speaks to his brother and a court-mandated therapist. He was 12 when Rivergate happened, so his identity is protected. His life has already been blown up once before though, when someone connected the dots as to who he really is. He’s constantly paranoid about anyone finding out who he really is again, taking as few risks as possible to avoid it.

Ciara knows none of this…*wink-wink, exhausted sigh*. Oliver only approaches her because he’s seen her in the supermarket one time too many on his lunch break and begins to suspect she’s a journalist out to expose him.

He decides the best course of action to prevent this is… asking her out on multiple dates to secretly cross-examine her…

By the time he’s confident enough she’s not out to get him, the two least charming people in Dublin have somehow fallen in love. Ciara moves into Oliver’s flat once the lockdown starts, and they both spend at least a couple pages in every single chapter questioning how this happened, how they’ve fallen so hard so fast.

To be fair, I was doing the same thing. Falling in love with someone with as much personality as a ham sandwich can’t be easy.

‘So what did Oliver do?’ you must be wondering, because there’s literally nothing else of interest happening in this book. Well in between the most boring lockdown scenes you can imagine, we’re drip-fed details from Oliver as well as Lee, who conveniently has a connection to the ‘Mill River Case’ (spoiler: literally everyone conveniently has a connection to the ‘Mill River Case’. This book is so lazy).

When he was 12, Oliver and another boy named Shane brutally beat a 10-year-old named Paul and then drowned him in a river because he was annoying and threw rocks at them once…

When Oliver finally confesses this to Ciara he makes it clear that Shane was the instigator, that Oliver didn’t do much, he just held Paul down while Shane went mad.

Before we get to the insultingly dumb twist, can I just say: what the hell? Through the entire book Oliver tells us, the reader, that his secret was a dumb mistake. A lapse in judgement he made as a child that he regrets and wishes he could take back. That he’s not evil or ‘a psycho’.

There are so many (so many) criminal scenarios that could be written where that sentiment is believable. That keeps the reader thinking about the nuances of crime & punishment. Beating someone half to death and then drowning them to finish the job when you realize you might get in trouble? Nah man, you’ve lost all nuance this already underwritten character maybe could’ve had with this reveal.

Catherine didn’t stop there though with the nauseating climax, oh no, we’re just getting started.

It turns out Oliver didn’t need to confess at all: Ciara already knew everything.

For about 10 pages the book bizarrely wants you to believe Ciara is the sister of Paul – the victim – before re-revealing she’s actually Shane’s sister.

She’s no journalist, but she did plan all of this. She moved to Dublin to stalk Oliver, hovered around him at the supermarket, dated and slept with him all just to get close to him so she can find out for sure what happened at Rivergate because her mum – who we didn’t know anything about until just before this twist is revealed ¾ through the book – is about to die. And somewhere along the way she accidentally fell in love…

This is a real book.

Even worse, instead of just moving on with the ending, there are several chapters that go back explaining how Ciara found Oliver (you’ll be shocked to know it makes absolutely no sense, entirely based on hunches and gut feelings), and then re-writes some of the opening chapters where they meet for the 3rd time. Only this time we get Ciara’s actual thoughts instead of the lies we were told before.

This is not unreliable narration. The book is written in close 3rd person. We’re given absolutely no indication whatsoever we should question the narration we’re reading or whether the thoughts the characters have are real. Just randomly pulling the rug and saying ‘by the way that was all a lie’ is not only unsatisfying, it’s lazy writing.

Anyway, this book was somehow still not over.

Ciara doesn’t tell Oliver she already knows when he tells her about Rivergate. Instead, she pretends she didn’t know, storming out of his flat back to hers. She stays there for a couple days before returning, finding Oliver heartbroken, hungover, half-starved and in serious need of some sleep – he’s an insomniac by the way, that’s important for literally just this last part.

They begin to chat, Ciara still playing dumb but hinting that she’s willing to stay together. Ciara insists Oliver get some sleep before they really hash things out. He has Rohypnol – yes, the date rape drug – at the ready for when he’s been awake for too long. He takes a pill and ambles into bed before somehow seeing a napkin in Ciara’s bag. A napkin from one of their dates.

Oliver decides he needs this napkin to sleep with (obviously) so he goes to get it. It’s being used as a bookmark in a notebook full of Ciara’s notes on Oliver. Not romantic notes, who’s his favorite Muppet and all that, notes from when she was trying to find him. Your best guess is as good as mine as to why she’s brought this notebook with her and left it out in the open.

Oliver freaks out, but since he’s literally just taken tranquilizers he can barely stand upright, let alone coherently question Ciara. He ends up having a bad fall in the bathroom, getting out enough of an accusation beforehand to compel Ciara to come clean – because this is definitely the right time to explain something like this.

She tells him she’s Shane’s sister, to which Oliver inexplicably re-confesses just before falling unconscious that he was actually the instigator who did most of the murdering, that he’d lied and thrown Shane under the bus.

Ciara drowns him in the shower.

Lee & Karl are useless and she gets away without ever even being contacted by the police. Ciara tells her mum the truth about Shane over the phone while she’s on her death bed. The end.

What nice things can I say about “56 Days”? It’s an easy read, until it starts trying as hard as it can to give you an aneurysm. I’ve never read a book set in Dublin, that was cool. They call cops Gardai.

That’s all I’ve got. Maybe I just don’t read enough crime thrillers, and my standards are too high, but that’s exactly why I don’t read many crime thrillers. Reading this felt like Howard was writing the final draft the day before her editor’s deadline and she needed to hit a wordcount with the right SEO keywords.

One silver-lining: I’m way more optimistic about my crime writer friends getting their books published.

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