My Haunted Library

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Review: The Sanatorium

Snowbound in a former sanatorium, now luxe resort, emotionally fragile Elin must rally her rusty detective skills to stop the perpetrator of a series of ghastly murders.

The Sanatorium—Sarah Pearse, 2021. Rating: 3/5

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Elin and her boyfriend Will travel to the Alps to celebrate the engagement of Elin’s brother Isaac and her former childhood friend, Laure. Le Sommet is a gleaming, minimalist architectural achievement. Once a tuberculosis sanatorium, it is now an opulent destination, albeit one that is so remote it quickly gets cut off from civilization by a major avalanche.

Elin, a police detective on leave, is prone to panic attacks after nearly dying while working a case. And after the death of her mother. And after the death of her little brother Sam, for which she blames Isaac. Elin hasn’t told patient, well-adjusted Will that she plans to accuse Isaac of Sam’s murder on this vacation. Complicating their stay, mutilated bodies wearing vintage gas masks keep turning up, and, with the staff and most of the guests evacuated because of the weather, people now depend on Elin, the only quasi-police presence available. The result is a potentially awesome locked room mystery.  

Except that it doesn’t hit the awesome mark. I was primed to love The Sanatorium: I expected (hoped for) a twisty, spooky mystery for cold autumn nights. I felt let down. Here is the good bit: the atmosphere did not disappoint. One can easily visualize the isolated resort, its echoey empty halls, the blizzard raging outside. It calls to mind the classic Overlook Hotel. Props for spectacular mood.

Unfortunately, the characters and the story don’t live up to the spectacular setting. We are supposed to like Elin, empathize with her losses, and understand that this investigation is a journey back to confidence or whatever, but her righteous self-pity is off-putting. Elin’s absurd go-it-alone investigative approach has predictable adverse effects. The rest of the characters walk stiffly through their roles as suspects. We don’t care about much about them, either. Or really, any of the dead people, whom we hardly know. The entire mystery itself strains credulity all the way to the end, with a long-winded windup by the villain and a confusing epilogue that (may?) be a teaser for the next novel.

The Sanatorium is not horrible. The writing is solid, and there are some nicely creepy scenes—by the pool, and other lonely places—that create enjoyable tension. I am just crabby because I had such high expectations, and the book felt like opportunity lost.