Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, “Death in Her Hands,” opens with a note written in “neat, impersonal printing” on ruled notebook paper.
“Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.”
When Vesta Gul, an elderly woman out for a morning walk with her dog Charlie, finds the note on the ground in the birch woods near her lonely cabin, she looks for Magda nearby but finds nothing, not even a “tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches.” Is there really a body? Is it a prank, a trick, the first line of a short story?
Vesta soon becomes convinced that the murder is real, despite the absence of a body, and begins to investigate haphazardly. It’s impossible to ignore, reading “Death in Her Hands,” how much detective work resembles writing a story. In fact, Vesta lingers over it, looking up “top tips for mystery writers” to aid her investigation and deeming the task “a creative endeavor, not some calculated procedure.”
The gumshoe reaches for stock characters to populate a suspect list; dreams up possible motives, behavioral patterns, hidden veins of rage or perversity; tries out narrative after narrative of the fateful event to find an order of events that rings true. If Vesta’s array of suspects is suspiciously untethered to reality — one, she decides with some sense of portent, should be a ghoul named “Ghod” — and her theories of the murder arise from nothing more than her own lurid imagination, well, she’s only a bit further down the continuum toward pure storytelling.
. . . .
In a New York Times interview this spring, Moshfegh called “Death in Her Hands” a “loneliness story.” Widowed and friendless in her twilight years, Vesta lives in an isolated cabin, in an area she just moved to, with only her big, lumbering, loyal dog for company. She despises the locals, who she sees as uncultured, impoverished, unhealthy. Her daily schedule revolves around walks with Charlie and a weekly grocery trip for rubbery bagels and rotisserie chicken. It would be mind-numbing — the loneliness, the boredom — were it not for the urgent task that falls into her lap: solving a murder.
Link to the rest at HuffPost