The independent news organization of Duke University

Elle Cosimano’s ‘Finlay Donovan Is Killing It: A Mystery’ is a perfectly clever summer read

a devil's bookshelf

4/5 Blue Devils 

I remember watching the Netflix original “Dead to Me” a couple summers back. It was the quintessential summer show: a dramedy with two unlikely best friends, united by a series of tumultuous events that neither could have ever predicted. I watched each episode, engrossed in the chaos of the plot, but delighted by the ease of its presentation. As a viewer, I felt as though I could simply enjoy the show rather than work to understand meta-questions hidden beneath its dialogue or make sense of encoded meanings in its visuals. 

Summer is a time when we often try to pause and enjoy stories that take us on an adventure without enormous effort on our part. Both ‘summer shows’ and ‘summer reads’ do not have to be reserved for the season. I do, however, find myself gravitating toward particular kinds of content in the summer that I otherwise would not. I am sure you can think of some titles that fit the bill. Often labeled ‘beach reads’ or ‘vacation books,’ these standalone novels or series are the perfect treasures to enjoy curled up on the couch or on a plane traveling miles away from home.

Much like “Dead to Me,” which will soon return for a third and final season, Elle Cosimano’s “Finlay Donovan is Killing It” is a story of charming disaster. This debut adult novel, from an author previously dedicated to essays and the young adult book scene, showcases the feats female protagonists must accomplish to avoid the most frightening repercussions. Romance novelist and mother-of-two Finlay Donovan, who writes under the pen name Fiona Donohue, finds herself caught in a story she wishes were fiction. After being confused for a contract killer over a conversation with her agent  about the best way to write a murder story, Finn’s role becomes confounded with a much more sinister occupation. This momentary misunderstanding by a stranger complicates Finn’s status as a struggling creator. She is given her most insurmountable assignment yet, by a woman she has never met. Somehow, though, this crazy task seems more manageable for Finlay than trying to always appear like the perfect mother and most accomplished author simultaneously. Under pressure from her agent Sylvia for the next breakout book, Finlay experiences an unexpected surprise: these new time-sensitive, and potentially life-threatening challenges of a once mundane life become source material for her new, mesmerizing novel. 

Partially a story of self-advocacy and determination, Finlay champions a particular feminist strength. Trying to pick up the pieces from a messy divorce (involving her husband, Steven, cheating with a real estate agent Theresa Hall) and a custody battle, Finn has a lot on the line and not much guaranteed. Writing, though, is one personal asset she cannot have stripped away. While her parents and ex-husband thought her writing was a waste of time, Finn knows that her mastery over narratives has given her an arsenal of experience no one would expect. This talent of understanding characters, and a keen attention to detail, allow Finn to prevent the fatal path of where this stranger’s mistake takes her. 

In chronicling this whirlwind of one mother’s 180-degree shift in duties, Cosimano strikes a balance between humor and tragedy. Without the much needed levity in the novel, this would otherwise be a gruesome and frightening thriller. Cosimano’s blending of these two often divergent genres is accomplished through key features and characters, and the way in which Finlay reacts to their presence. Her friends and family include a handsome detective, a bartender (studying to be a lawyer, often confused for an underwear model), two naive and sweet young children, and a bold and loyal 22-year-old babysitter. This cast of characters is a delightful and, at times, hilarious combination that makes for a dynamic plot throughout. 

Also reminiscent of “Dead to Me,” the book’s lingering danger is due to the competing threats of the Mafia and the police. Which force will catch up quickly? Who will find out the tricks in the tactics and holes in the alibis? Who will solve the crime and potentially erase the criminals? This novel investigates challenging topics of the real world like sexual violence, the trials of motherhood and marriage and divorce, all while being a narrative that transports readers to a literary world beyond our comprehension. Cosimano has built a larger-than-life, innovative space, which Finlay Donovan occupies, that I am confident she will cleverly preserve throughout the rest of the series. As any great author does, Cosimano leaves this first book on a captivating cliffhanger. One that can only be answered with the best continuation: another sleek book in a hardcover copy.

In my opinion, this smart and snappy novel earns 4/5 Blue Devils. While I found some of the twists and turns predictable, I admired Cosimano’s dedication to each cascading event. As an author, she does not refrain from increasing danger, heightening stakes and making the narrative leap from the page, even if it appears unrealistic at times. I would have enjoyed seeing more character development of the babysitter Vero to further understand her needs, wants and motivations. In addition, I might have appreciated a decision to alternate perspectives between chapters, comparing and contrasting the voices of Theresa and Finn. Yet, who knows what is to come? With Cosimano’s second book, these wishes of mine might actually exist on the page.

I read this novel partially at home, and partially outdoors. One Saturday afternoon, I sat outside a coffee shop by my house, enjoying the liveliness of the crowds walking up and down city blocks, everyone reemerging in public spaces. All the while, I remained consumed in Cosimano’s plot, tied to the text she so carefully crafts. The summer chatter of passersby remained like background noise, her words never drowned out by these drifting conversations. If you, like me, are looking to enjoy a season of reading, or perhaps are interested in picking up a few books here and there, I would recommend starting your summer days on this adventure with Finn. Perhaps you will discover a marketable plotline of your own, and hopefully encounter less danger while doing so. 

Bates Crawford is a Trinity junior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly and she rates reads on a 0-5 Blue Devil scale. Bates recommends books to her fellow students for free-time reading when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Elle Cosimano’s ‘Finlay Donovan Is Killing It: A Mystery’ is a perfectly clever summer read” on social media.