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‘You Must Remember This’ Is A Mystery Novel You Won’t Forget

Kat Rosenfield’s latest mystery thriller, ‘You Must Remember This,’ gives readers plenty of memorable mystery and well-drawn family drama.

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“He always comes at night, she’d said.”

Is “he” a ghost, a memory, or something more real? That’s the crux of Kat Rosenfield’s new mystery thriller, “You Must Remember This,” where the present intertwines with the past, and the dangers of living there are made manifest.

It’s Christmas Eve 2014, but elderly Miriam Caravasio has only an intermittent sense of where she is in time. Stirred awake, sensing her husband’s presence in the dark, Miriam walks out of the Whispers, her seaside estate in Maine, and onto the ice with her husband Theo, crossing the frozen reach to their romantic island hideaway. It’s their tradition, their secret. But Theo is long dead, isn’t he?

Looking back, Miriam sees a light shining from a window on the top floor and feels a “creeping sensation of dread” that spreads to the reader and never dissipates. “You Must Remember This” is permeated by a sense of unease, a not-quite-rightness goosed along by shiver-inducing sentences: “In the great stone house standing high on the hill, the light behind the upstairs window goes out.”

The novel’s epigraph features Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice,” and each of those forces play a significant part in this immersive story of a manor house and family, both stuffed with secrets. Advertising the novel as “a Knives Out-style whodunnit” certainly sets up high expectations, although the two stories don’t have much in common in tone or content besides their Northeast settings.

“You Must Remember This” is split into two timelines: The modern-day portion, with the family gathered for Christmas 2014, is told from the perspective of Miriam’s granddaughter, 26-year-old Delphine (“Del”); the other portion features snapshots of Miriam’s past life, from headstrong little girl to headstrong woman, including revelations about her life with the lobsterman Theo, “the boy on the bow of the boat” that she glimpsed one day from shore as a child.

In 2014, Mimi’s husband had been gone half a century, killed in a boating accident, a circumstance Del considers a “most gorgeous, tragic love story,” although the real story of the marriage turns out not to be the romantic tragedy of Del’s imaginings. Mimi talks in unsettling terms about her late husband, as if he’d just stepped out of the room. Del herself one night thinks she sees a man in old-fashioned clothing at the end of a dark hallway. And if it is all in Mimi’s imagination, what to make of the tell-tale bruise on her neck?

The fractured family has gathered to celebrate Christmas at the Whispers, named thus because “when the wind hits the gables just right, it sounds like someone muttering.” Miriam (“Mimi”) is 85, suffering memory loss, and lives in a facility on the mainland, where she’s faithfully visited by Del and cared for by Adam, who is escorting Miriam to the Whispers for what may be her last Christmas.

Del is an unsatisfied, indecisive woman with a 3 percent phone battery and no messages, at a loose end after escaping New York City. She’s likable, without direction but not lacking resourcefulness or wit: “I still gathered that he’d been a disappointment in the way that handsome men with guitars usually are.” Del also has a little secret the publisher’s publicity department doesn’t keep sufficiently secret, so avoid book blurbs if you can.

She has a frosty relationship with her put-upon mother, Dora, who has become caretaker of sorts of the Whispers, a house, if not precisely haunted, then one with secrets of its own. Built by Miriam’s father, who made his fortune selling bootleg liquor during Prohibition, it’s a labyrinth of secret passages and hidden nooks that only Mimi knows. As a child, she used them to avoid the neighborhood oaf, foisted upon her as a potential future marriage mate (she learns her “hips are exactly half as wide as a case of whiskey”). A sinister man who goes by “Smith” also hangs out there, a man out of her father’s social class with bad teeth.

Besides Dora, Miriam’s two other children have also come for Christmas. Dora’s sister Diana brings her colorless husband; the couple may need the money from their share of the estate. Not that they wish Miriam dead. Or do they? Miriam’s son Richard is the thrice-divorced family antagonist who gets drunker and meaner as the holiday wears on, and who holds a strange grudge against his mother. “He was good at knowing just what to say so that you felt like you wanted to cry but knew you had to laugh,” writes Rosenfield.

Also mysteriously joining the festivities is bitter Jack Dyer, the son of the family’s former housekeeper Shelly, who was let go long ago under mysterious circumstances and now resides in the same nursing home as Miriam.

Just as the family has seemingly reached a Christmas truce, Miriam sneaks out of the estate on Christmas Eve night and perishes. Was it an accident, or was she lured out onto thin ice?

Although the tale has more than a touch of the macabre, Mimi’s age, memory loss, and romantic desires are not portrayed as part of the horror. Rosenfield’s previous thriller for adults, “No One Will Miss Her,” written in a more terse style, also had its share of ghastly moments (readers will nose of what I speak).

 There is lots of ice and plenty of shadows, and a few too many “winks,” but also welcome doses of modern-day wackiness courtesy of Del, which prevent the mood from going full Gothic: “I didn’t tell him that I got fired from my job, because I’d left work early to run home and sleep with Colin on the one day that my boss had some sort of flavored water marketing emergency and didn’t believe me when I said I’d gone home sick.”

Rosenfield, who also writes iconoclastic literary and cultural essays, is adroit at sneaking in clues, and while the range of suspects in “You Must Remember This” might be too narrow, the specifics of the solution are shocking and unpredictable.

It’s not a secret passageway but a more modern piece of technology that holds the novel’s final secret, leading to a confrontation that doesn’t involve lazy gunplay. Take at least some of what Miriam says seriously, and you might be ahead of the game. Verdict: “You Must Remember This” is memorable indeed.

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