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Review | A young mother investigates her own murder in an ingenious new novel

Dead men talking: That’s who we hear in the voice-overs of iconic films noir like “Sunset Boulevard” and “D.O.A.” The male narrators of those films have been finished off even before they begin telling us their stories. In an ingenious riff on this hallowed tradition, the very first sentence of Katie Williams’s suspense novel, “My Murder,” introduces us to a chatty, female voice from beyond the grave: “I was supposed to be getting dressed for the party, the first since my murder.”

Williams’s narrator is a young mother named Lou, short for Louise, who has died and been restored to life. Hamlet may have pithily regarded Death as that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” but in Williams’s imagined world, Lou and a few other women have made the rare round trip courtesy of a government-funded “replication commission” that grew them back from the cells of their murdered originals. Yes, murdered. All the women restored to life by the replication commission owe their genetically engineered reincarnation to the violence ascribed to one serial killer: a mundane monster named Edward Early who’s now behind bars. To deal with the oddness of their shared experience, the women now meet weekly in a “serial killers survival group.” Ushering us into a meeting, Lou comments:

“The replication commission had rented this meeting room from some limping family medical practice. Simpering, pastel, fuzzy — it was an old aunt’s bosom of a room. The chairs were pin-tucked satin numbers. … There were the five of us in the survivors’ group: Angela, Jasmine, Lacy, Fern, and myself. The name was a lie. None of us had survived.”

Don’t worry, ‘Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone’ is a comedy

That kicker of a last line is pure noir, but Williams (who is also the author of a 2018 work of speculative fiction called “Tell the Machine Goodnight,” a finalist for the Kirkus Prize) also deftly swirls science fiction and domestic suspense plotlines into this fresh and unpredictable tale. Six months after her murder, Lou is brought back and resumes not only her private life with her husband, Silas, and toddler, Nova (who’s disconcertingly grown since Lou was murdered, shortly after her birth), but also her job at a virtual reality therapy service where, assuming different avatars, she has perfected the art of knowing “how to read people, to intuit when to loosen your embrace, when to clasp tight, when to let go entirely.” Lou, however, begins to realize that she may have foolishly grown too close to one of those clients, whose identity is also cloaked in an avatar.

Virtual reality also informs another, even more unsettling, plotline. Arriving home one night, Lou senses something is “off” with Silas. Reluctantly he tells her that one of the guys at work has shown him a new video game: a game about Lou’s murder. Indeed, the game, called “Early Evening,” after the name of the serial killer, allows players to step into the role of Lou — or any of the other murdered women — and navigate the landscape of city streets, parks and intersections where their bodies were found without being murdered. The point of the contest, Lou quickly understands once she steels herself to play it, is to instill fear in women.

As Williams certainly knows, instilling fear in women is also the consequence, intended or not, of so much violent, misogynistic content in popular culture — including suspense fiction. Imbued with a sharp feminist consciousness, “My Murder” cheekily invokes and subverts the conventional serial-killer-stalking-terrified-women plot. When doubts belatedly begin to surface about the circumstances of her own murder, Lou joins “The Luminols,” a group of amateur detectives who investigate “cold cases, the serious ones, the unsolved assaults and murders and rapes.” But even the collective brain wattage of “The Luminols” isn’t powerful enough to anticipate the shocker that Lou ferrets out by the end of the investigation.

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Bringing together the futuristic visions of speculative fiction with the familiar tropes of domestic suspense and noir, “My Murder” shakes up the same-old, same-old conventions of every genre it touches and has a ton of fun doing so. Much like those government scientists she imagines who work for the “replication commission,” Williams, as a novelist, has also mastered an inventive approach to cloning and regeneration.

Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” is a professor of literature at Georgetown University.

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