Book review: If you could travel, 'The Herd' would be your ideal airplane novel
"The Herd" by Andrea Bartz (Ballantine)
The phrase "airplane novel" sounds like something from a bygone era, given that air travel itself has been rendered all but obsolete by the COVID-19 pandemic. But, under normal circumstances, "The Herd" by Andrea Bartz would be the perfect "airplane novel" for a certain type of mystery reader: say, someone whose taste in mysteries leans toward soap opera-type thrillers of the "Big Little Lies" variety.
"The Herd" isn't as sharply drawn as Liane Moriarty's best-seller-turned-HBO-series, but it rests on the same formula. An insular group of well-groomed women becomes drawn into investigating the murder of one of their own, all the while keeping scandalous personal secrets tightly sealed behind their persimmon pink-stained lips.
The plot of "The Herd" is as twisty as one those artful blowouts from the Drybar. It opens at an exclusive "women's only" workspace in New York called the Herd. Here's a brief description of the plush ambience of the place as described by first-time visitor Katie Bradley, a journalist newly arrived from the Midwest, whose sister, Hana, works as a publicist for the Herd:
"On the tenth floor, the doors slid open and I stepped out in to a sunlit entry. I paused, momentarily stunned. ... It had the girlie chicness of a magazine office, but without the clutter or bustle -- here everything was calm. Sunlight spilled in from the windows; it was warm but not stuffy, and the air smelled vaguely of plumeria. A woman with glossy French-braid pigtails and molded spectacles smiled at me from behind a marble-fronted desk. On the wall behind her was the now-famous logo: The HERD, the H-E-R a deep plum, the other letters gray."
In wonderment (and in one of the few mildly clever lines in this novel), Katie exclaims to her sister, "This place is unreal, Hana. I feel like I'm inside Athena's vagina."
Presiding over this womb of a workplace is Eleanor Walsh, a college friend of Hana's. (A third friend from college, artsy Mikki, also works at the Herd.) Eleanor is a chic postfeminist dynamo, or, as the clever Katie thinks of her: "Entrepreneur Barbie: shiny brown hair in mermaid curls, skin dewy, eyes clear." Even, before she hit on the idea for "The Herd," Eleanor made headlines by creating an ethical makeup line called Gleam. But, as might be expected, Eleanor's shiny success has attracted some haters, chief among them a misogynist bunch of guys who call themselves the "Antiherd."
The night before Katie arrives at the Herd, an intruder breaks into the premises and spray paints an ugly epithet for lady parts in the Gleam Room, the sanctuary where Herd members retire to apply fresh makeup. Then, a few days afterward, just as Eleanor is slated to make a big announcement about development plans for the Herd, she vanishes. Did Eleanor just need to take a self-care break away from the glare of the spotlight, or is her exit permanent?
As is standard in a story like this, the women who constitute Eleanor's closed circle of gal pals take turns stepping into the role of prime suspect. Why did Katie, who got a big advance to write a book on tech, suddenly abandon that project and turn up in New York, where she was desperate to break into the inner sanctum of the Herd? What's making laid-back boho Mikki so anxious that she's vaping weed all the time? And, just how resentful is Hana of the way Eleanor has exploited her as the face of diversity for her company promotions? (Background: Katie, who's white, and Hana, who's a woman of color, are sisters by adoption.)
Each member of the trio takes turns narrating and editing events to flatter herself. But, because Katie, Hana and Eleanor are more "concepts" than characters whose voices all sound alike, such a potentially complex narrative structure barely registers. As the story progresses, more suspects, revelations and bodies dutifully pile up. The climax takes place on Christmas Eve at the stately New England home of Eleanor's numbed, cocktail-quaffing parents, who've inexplicably invited the three young women to take the train up from New York and enjoy a snowy Hallmark-style Christmas together.
It's disappointing that Bartz takes a glossy concept -- mayhem in a female-only workspace! -- and makes so little of it. If Lilly Pulitzer manufactured suspense novels, they would read like "The Herd": colorful, but devoid of imaginative depth.