White Elephant by Trish Harnetiaux

Spending years in a fiction writing workshop can make you feel defeated, especially if you’re working on a novel. The problem is, you may run into the “kernel comment.” The kernel comment is when people love an idea, just a kernel of goodness, in your novel, but want you to redo everything else. Cue throwing entire manuscript in the trash, because depression, lol. To be honest, I felt that way about White Elephant by Trish Harnetiaux.

Claudine and Henry Calhoun had a successful real estate business in Aspen, Colorado. An architect, Henry would design houses. A ruthless realtor, Claudine would then sell them above market rates. But when we meet them at the beginning of the novel, business isn’t great for some reason. They sound broke, but also spend loads of money on the upcoming company winter party. Details, people.

Apparently, decades ago Henry murdered two people while black-out drunk. Claudine bought the murdered owner’s property, Henry designed a house, and they had their first sale ever. But, now it’s 2019 and the house is on the market again. Henry’s anxiety keeps him away from the place, but Claudine accepts the listing, this time with her key client being pop star Zara.

Zara wants to see the house (immediately!), so Claudine combines the company Christmas party with a house showing by moving the party to the isolated Aspen home. A blizzard commences, everyone has their phones locked up to protect Zora’s privacy, and a rival realtor with whom Claudine had an affair shows up uninvited. Everything is shaken and stirred just right to make a nightmare cocktail.

The title comes from a game Claudine is famous for hosting at the company party. Guests bring a wrapped gift, and it better be expensive or Claudine is gonna be mad. She’s got that hyper-controlling, perfectly-fit-and-trim, super-composed, stab-you-with-a-Gucci-knife-if-you-mess-with-her-perfect-life white lady thing that keeps happening in thrillers. What a waste of two X chromosomes.

Tapping the side of a champagne flute with a cocktail fork to rouse the attention of a room brought Claudine immense pleasure. She was an expert. Knowing where to place her fingers on the glass, the exact part of the flute to strike, the right amount of champagne necessary to achieve the desired pitch, the right part of the fork to create the perfect ring.

— A white lady in a thriller novel who isn’t putting her brain to good use.

Here are the goodness kernels in Harnetiaux’s novel: each character has a “thing” to help you recall them: the yoga teacher, the retired Naval man, the wood-working brothers, etc. They’re set up like characters in Clue. Remote house, record snow storm. The murder weapon, brought as a white elephant gift, is unwrapped. Boom, yummy.

But those characters who are name + occupation aren’t moved around much and provide few motives. They fill up space in the house. A remote house that, actually, people can and do leave, which ruins the promise that this is a Clue-like story. At 230 pages, the plot spends too much time describing Claudine’s affair with the rival realtor. This could be a motive, but the threads aren’t pulled. The yoga instructor’s crush on Henry could be a motive, but it’s left alone. In fact, the scene in which Claudine and Henry try to deduce the guilty party lasts about a paragraph. By the time things got going, so few pages were left. Imagine if the dinner scene in Clue went on for 80% of the film.

The person who brought the present can be spotted a mile away thanks to bits of letter Harnetiaux includes throughout the novel, which was a mistake for a few reasons. Firstly, see the previous sentence. Second, the bits of letter come before being given context, so largely what’s written is forgettable (I went through and re-read the pieces of letter altogether when I approached the end). The letter writer calls a character by one name, but the third-person narrator calls the character by another name. Why? There is no trickery here; we know who you’re talking about!

Bits of humor shine through, such as when Henry, drunk after decades of sobriety, believes everyone in the house is guilty of putting his murder weapon in the box. He argues that that’s how Agatha Christie ended Murder on the Orient Express, which is a great callback to another mystery. But overall, I felt the novel was unexplored and unbalanced. I had fun, though, knowing that Anne @ I’ve Read This also read White Elephant and wondering what she thought about each moment, character, and plot point. There were moments I groaned aloud, “Oh, Anne!” which totally made my day!

Bah, humbug!

10 comments

  1. Wow, when you were describing the setup this sounded like it had the potential to be such a fun read, it’s too bad the details didn’t work as well as the premise!

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    • I can’t believe I accidentally posted this review too early! Oh, well — it just means two posts went up the same day. Based on the comments I’m getting, people are heading toward one post or the other, lol.

      I think since you come from a creative writing background, you’d likely want to workshop Harnetiaux as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Is that why I ended up with more posts than I could deal with? Not a fan of crime fiction with contrived situations, though I do remember in primary school trying to write Murder on the Orient Express to fit the rail car that ran from our little country town to connect with the ‘main’ line. The suspects all holed up together is a very old and very tired idea. I wonder if Kris Kringle today will include a murder weapon – I can think of a couple of rellos I could use it on!

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    • I must have double scheduled for December 23, so two posts were shared at the exact same time. Sorry about that! I love that you tried to write your own Agatha Christie; I remember writing my own Scooby Doo episode in 5th grade, so I’m positive your ambition exceeded me own.

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  3. Hmm. This one sounds like a dud! What I find odd is the White Elephant thing. Where I’m from, a White Elephant gift is something tacky/silly/something you don’t want – best white elephant gift I’ve ever seen was shellacked cow dung. It’s not a gift that anyone spends a large amount of money on.
    I also find it frustrating/interesting that Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is mentioned. So many times mystery books spoil the ending to the famous Christie mysteries, and not everyone has read them…. it’s very irritating!! I remember one mystery I read spoiled the ending of And Then There Were None. I still enjoyed the book when I eventually read it, but I read it differently knowing ahead of time “whodunit”.

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    • I can see how that would be frustrating, and I didn’t even think of it before I mentioned it! White Elephant gifts are often inexpensive in my family too. This lady gets out of control and basically threatens her employees if they don’t bring something super expensive. It’s really unrealistic, so even the premise is a bit frustrating. I think the most memorable White Elephant gift we’ve brought home was a giant lightbulb about the size of my head. It’s still at my house *sigh*

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