The Farm opens like a film noir. The 1950 film D.O.A. opens with a man walking into a police station and saying: “I’d like to report a murder… my own!” From there the bulk of the movie he spends recounting the events of the past few days. Only in the final act do the main character and the policeman get up from the desk. The Farm is similar. It has a similarly hooky opening. Daniel, our main character, is called by his father: your mother is sick and mentally ill. His parents have moved to Sweden and so Daniel quickly makes arrangements to fly there. At Heathrow Daniel receives a call from his mother: don’t trust your father, I’m on my way to London.
The bulk of the book is the mother, Tilde, describing the events of the past summer in Sweden in excruciating detail. She tells the story of how she happened upon a conspiracy and presents evidence. Her narrative, broken up by short scenes of Daniel taking in the information and asking a few questions, takes up about three quarters of the novel. She spends hours talking to Daniel in his apartment and then they move to a hotel and she spends some more hours talking.
The story, as one might expect of a mystery, does become engrossing. You want to know what happened. The problem with burying the narrative in the mother’s version of events is that we don’t know whether we can trust her at all, but it’s the only story we get for 300 pages. Tilde monologues for hours and hours, telling the story in chronological order. This chronological order caveat seemed irksome to me. It felt like a contrivance, more serving the author crafting a mystery than a mother trying to convince her son. But I have to admit that Tilde’s reasons are woven into the narrative. Any mystery story will demand certain leaps of faith, and Tom Rob Smith proves very skillful at weaving these contrivances into the story itself.
The reason I started off by referencing D.O.A. is that the narrative structure used in both pieces of entertainment works differently in film than in a novel. In the movie when our storyteller begins speaking, there’s a harpy noise and then we simply see the past take place. In a book we never settle into Tilde’s account as easily. We are stuck in Daniel’s perspective listening to his mother talk for hours and not wanting to give too much away too early. It becomes frustrating to be stuck at a kitchen table, or in a hotel. The reader wants to get to the truth and it becomes clear we cannot completely trust Tilde, and yet we are forced to listen. It is only in the last few chapters that Daniel becomes an active character. He travels to Sweden in search of the truth. It seems to me it would’ve been a more exciting mystery for this to be the main part of the book. Daniel fumbling around Sweden with a notepad and a pencil looking for clues into a mystery that may or may not exist has more direct tension than Tilde telling a story that we know ends at the kitchen table.
The Farm ultimately grabbed me. In my second sitting I ended up finishing the book, reading deep into the night wondering how the events would shake out. Ultimately that’s what we want from a mystery story like this, and it delivers. Tom Rob Smith’s writing remains proficient throughout. The mystery is a delicate balancing act. Smith has to keep Tilde’s account from being seeming tipping whether she’s insane or sane. Sprinkled throughout there are plenty of clues suggesting either without ever making the reader feel sure. This does require the characters to be slightly more flat than one would like. Especially with Daniel this remains an issue. He’s our narrator and he does go through somewhat of a journey over the course of the book. He comes out of the events a changed man, but his progress is announced at the end rather than communicated throughout, because our main character simply isn’t a factor in Tilde’s story and that’s what we’re reading.
To sum up: Tom Rob Smith provides us with a consistently proficient mystery story. It lacks action and depth of character, but it delivers the most essential feature of a mystery story namely a good, solid mystery.
This review is written by our contributor Roy den Boer. Would you also like to write for Bored to Death book club? Send us an email at email@example.com!
Review Copy attained through Netgalley with special thanks to the publisher Grand Central Publishing.