“Edward Fosca was a murderer. This was a fact.” So begins the prologue to The Maidens, a murder mystery set in academe by the British-Cypriot novelist Alex Michaelides, author of the best-selling 2019 thriller The Silent Patient. But does Michaelides’ whodunnit live up to its intriguing premise and heady first line?
Mariana Andros is a grieving widow in her mid-30s, eking out an existence as a group therapist in London, when she receives a fateful call from her niece Zoe, studying at St. Christopher’s College at Cambridge University: “That was how the nightmare began.” The melodrama is laid on quickly and thickly in The Maidens.
Zoe, who Mariana considers her “surrogate daughter,” sounds scared: Her close friend Tara, a fellow student, is missing, and an unidentified body has been found murdered in marshland near the college.
With already a lot to fret over, including a troubled, and perhaps dangerous, patient, Mariana returns to her alma mater Cambridge. As a shy student, she first encountered her future husband Sebastian there, “emerging like some strange mythical creature, a demigod born in water” after he fell off his punt.
Mariana is determined to protect Zoe, who she thinks knows more than she’s telling, especially regarding the possible involvement of Fosca, the sinister professor of Greek tragedy. As she gets more deeply entwined and more suspicious of the professor, Mariana plans to rely on her “instinctive knowledge of human nature” to figure out who killed Tara. But can she trust her own mind?
She comes to the certainty that Fosca himself is targeting the elegant, elite female students who make up his private study group, a.k.a. The Maidens, “distinctive young women” who prance about campus in long white dresses. Zoe claims that the night before Tara died, Tara accused the professor of threatening her life.
Michaelides really raises the dramatic stakes with his prologue gambit. We’re supposed to suspect Fosca from the start, so he couldn’t turn out to be the murderer. Right? Mariana listens in on the charismatic professor’s standing-room-only lecture, a “dazzling” (and creepy) tribute to the murdered Tara, which raises her suspicions still higher.
So what do The Maidens and Fosca actually get up to? Like the original Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Greece, the details remain thin.
But while veils of mystery may have pleased the Harvest Goddess, they come off as annoying in a modern-day mystery novel. The Maidens feel more Victorian, with an endangered, inconsistent Gothic heroine in Mariana, who is recklessly brave one moment, a frightened rabbit the next.
The book’s cover — a marble bust on a jet black background, with cracks running through the cover akin to the shards of an antique vase — promises an atmospheric, intellectually enriched murder mystery in the dark vein of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Michaelides certainly strains to conjure up an academic atmosphere.
The classical symbolism begins in flashback, with Mariana and Sebastian vacationing on the Greek island of Naxos, where Mariana prays at a temple dedicated to Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest, and her daughter Persephone, also known as… The Maiden.
The next morning, her husband is dead, drowned in rough waters, leaving only his shoes behind at the water’s edge. In despair, Mariana thinks she can hear the goddesses laughing at her from beyond the waves, one of several details that call Mariana’s mental state into question — as well, perhaps, as her certainty of Fosca’s guilt.
Mariana fears her spirit will forever be trapped in Naxos, “as Demeter had once been, when Hades kidnapped her beloved daughter, Persephone, and took her to the Underworld to be his bride.” A theme of unlucky family relations runs through the story, both within the murder plot and the Greek tragedies referenced on every other page. Tennyson and The Duchess of Malfi also make regular rounds.
But too often Michaelides stretches for profundity, only to grasp cliché. Not only is Fosca tall, dark, and handsome, there is something “charismatic, even Byronic,” about the man. A police chief inspector has a “lean and hungry look.” Another character reacts “like an avenging Fury.” One can perhaps get away with a suspicious rendezvous in a “sinister, desolate” cemetery, but the “stygian gloom” of a professor’s accommodation is a bit overboard. It’s all rather theatrical.
Michaelides’ stark, chilly writing style, so effective in the stark, chilly The Silent Patient (set around a psychiatric ward in London) doesn’t fit the more romantic, elevated scene of the fictional St. Christopher’s College at Cambridge University.
The main character’s outsider status keeps her detached from the heart of the action. The killings and surrounding police work also feel thin and cursory. Plot conveniences make Mariana privy to police details, but to little avail. A pattern emerges: Suspects, mostly men, appear in front of Mariana, do something creepy or suspicious, and disappear again until next needed to goose things along.
The Maidens moves briskly, at a thriller pace, and racks up a healthy body count along the way. Perhaps too briskly; the cloistered medieval atmosphere is not allowed to settle into the story’s bones. Cambridge is also Michaelides’s alma mater, and he conjures up some nice college atmosphere, leaning on reliables like punting on the River Cam and drinking at the Eagle Pub.
Anonymous journal entries from a clearly troubled soul keep things interestingly askew for a while, and the author effectively conveys melancholy and the poignancy of memory. As Edith Hamilton wrote in her classic Mythology, “The idea of sorrow was foremost” in the story of Demeter and Persephone, and that permeates the book.
But there are few genuine clues to the murders. Mariana herself doesn’t do much detecting or even psychoanalysis, and a vital piece of the puzzle literally falls in front of her. (A tribute to Euripides, who some say invented the deus ex machina?) And the solution, to put it in scholarly terms, is just plain batty.
The Maidens could have been an engagingly lurid tale of arcane college rituals and murder, but even the rumors of blindfolds and hallucinogens are relayed only briefly and second-hand. There is simply not enough made with The Maidens promised in the title. Give this academic mystery a C: not disreputable, but disappointing.