BY ​Tyler Patterson in Reviews | 22 APR 20

Ottessa Moshfegh’s New Murder Mystery Novel is a Tale of Paranoid Isolation

‘Death in Her Hands’ toys with the conventions of crime fiction in ways that are often heavy-handed 

BY ​Tyler Patterson in Reviews | 22 APR 20

Ottessa Moshfegh, 2020. Courtesy: Penguin 

What will a mind do when left entirely to its own devices? This is one of the driving questions of quarantine, and also of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands (2020, Penguin Press). Like her 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Moshfegh’s latest is narrated by an isolated woman prone to paranoia: an elderly widow, Vesta Gul (pronounced, fittingly, like ‘ghoul’), who has moved into a secluded cabin following the death of her overbearing husband, Walter. (Moshfegh describes in detail how Walter stripped Vesta’s life of meaning and still dominates her ‘mindspace’.) One day, while walking her dog through the birch woods, Vesta discovers a note proclaiming that a girl named Magda has been killed but ‘nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.’ Although Vesta can find no trace of Magda, she embarks on an obsessive quest to investigate her murder.

If this opening sounds a bit too pat, even facile, that’s because Moshfegh toys with the conventions of murder mysteries. At times, the genre’s formulaic qualities bleed over into the novel itself. Vesta begins her detective work by running an internet search for ‘How does one solve a murder mystery?’ on a computer at the library in Levant, the novel’s run-down setting. (Admirers of Moshfegh’s work will detect similarities between Levant and the putrid pastoral of her 2015 novel Eileen.) The article she reads, ‘TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS’, instructs her to profile her victim and make a list of suspects, and so she begins to weave an elaborate meta-narrative. Vesta imagines that Magda arrived as a guest worker from Eastern Europe and took up residence with someone named Shirley and her son, Blake. She imagines the teenage boy’s crush on the young and pretty Magda turned to bloodlust. Yet, a single suspect would make for a mystery too easily solved. Vesta feels her list needs a more mysterious addition, ‘a figure of rage representing the dark subconscious of all of mankind’; she begins to write ‘ghoul’, the phonetic equivalent of her (and her late husband’s) last name, and her hand suddenly slips, fusing the u and l into a d, to form ‘Ghod’. Later, when Vesta is pulled over on the highway by a rude cop, she identifies him as this satanic force, reflecting her mistrust of patriarchal figures. Yet, the link between Ghod’s name and her own implies that, in fact, this rage resides within her. 

Ottessa Moshfegh, Death in Her Hands, 2020. Courtesy: Penguin 

Death in Her Hands seems to take inspiration from ‘A Better Place’, Moshfegh’s 2017 short story. In that perverse fable, a brother and sister believe that by killing Jarek Jaskolka, a man whose name they have dreamt up, they can return to the unspecified ‘other place’ from whence they came. (The only other way to get there, the children note, is to die.) The story is astonishing for the siblings’ belief that they do not belong on earth and that violent death is their only hope for transcendence. Vesta, however, lacks such conviction, at least with regards to herself. As an amateur detective, her haphazard logic is a product of convenience: for instance, at the library, she finds an edition of The Complete Works of William Blake (2015) and believes it to be a sign from Blake, her teenage suspect. This heavy-handed coincidence allows Moshfegh to undermine our faith in her protagonist but also means that the text lacks the surprising strangeness of ‘A Better Place’. In another scene, Vesta faints while searching for her lost dog among the ‘toxic’ pines and is taken in by her neighbours. When she tells them she is widowed, they hand her a book entitled Death; hence the title of Moshfegh’s novel. The moment feels asphyxiatingly manufactured.

Moshfegh cut her teeth as an experimental writer, bending the conventions of genres until they nearly snapped. Here, though, the same process has yielded uneven results. Death in Her Hands is most generative when read as an exploration of isolation’s effects on the mind – especially one traumatized by an abusive marriage. The deaths in Vesta’s hands are not only Magda’s and Walter’s, but also her own. Haunted by her mortality, Vesta longs for an escape from the prison of her own mind – an escape she subconsciously knows to be impossible. 

Tyler Patterson is an educator and artist based in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.