“I’ve disguised the ugly truth in a kind of spiffy noir package,” Ottessa Moshfegh said about her debut novel, Eileen, published in 2015. Convinced that readers wouldn’t pick up a novel about a self-loathing woman with little desire to please others, she masked her “freak book” as a mystery. To Moshfegh’s frustration, readers still fixated on the grossness of Eileen—a laxative-addicted clerk at a juvenile prison who has vivid, violent thoughts—so she funneled similarly off-putting traits into the narrator of her second novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but gave her the looks of an off-duty model. (“Try to tell me she’s disgusting!” she told one interviewer.) In her latest novel, Death in Her Hands, Moshfegh is back to her old formal tricks. This time, she uses a meta-mystery-gone-mad to explore a question that applies to her own oeuvre: How much control can women have over their narratives?
The opening of Death in Her Hands gestures as much toward fable as to mystery. Vesta Gul is a 72-year-old widow who lives in a secluded former Girl Scout cabin in the woods with a muscular dog, her “alarm and bodyguard.” One day, while on a dawn walk, she stumbles upon a note that reads: “Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body.” The notepaper is suspiciously pristine, the penmanship impersonal—the kind “you’d use when making a sign for a yard sale,” Vesta observes. More puzzling, there is no body, or any sign of there ever having been a body, and Vesta has never met a Magda in her tiny town. The story that ensues—told from the unsympathetic, utterly unreliable first-person perspective of Vesta—is Vesta’s attempt to solve the mystery, or, rather, the mystery of whether there is even a mystery to solve.
The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino once described Ottessa Moshfegh as the “most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.” In light of her latest novel, Moshfegh might also be viewed as an unflinching chronicler of the wild things women are pushed to do in the face of emptiness. Vesta—who has no phone, internet, or friends—seizes upon the note as a welcome disruption of her routinized, isolated existence. She’s seen her fair share of Agatha Christie films, but pursues sleuthing methods that are as absurd as her predicament with comical conviction. At the local library, she types “Is Magda dead?” into Ask Jeeves, and when that returns nothing of use, clicks on a page of “TOP TIPS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS!”