Book review: The Murder List by Hank Phillipi Ryan

AMBER LOVE 17-MAY-2019 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I’m also an Amazon Influencer so you can shop through my lists of recommended products.


Five stars is not enough!


Didn’t want to put it down.

Those are blurbs you typically see by famous authors or film critics about the next “big thing” on the market. Well I’m using these cliches too because my non-famous self was captivated by the development of the three main characters, the plot twists, and the changing points of view in each chapter that The Murder List delivered.

I had a couple of nights where I had to force the book down in order to go to bed. Then I kept thinking about it. Rachel North, 30-years-old and in her third year of Harvard Law School, was the primary unreliable narrator. Yet, despite her dominating the bulk of the book’s narration, the points of view of her husband Jack Kirkland and her new boss Martha Gardiner presented nearly as much focus into their versions of the events of the past and the dramatic unfolding of the present situation.

Jack hates to lose. Especially in court. And especially to Assistant District Attorney Martha Gardiner. My new boss.

The Murder List is a prime example of having an unlikeable protagonist. She’s immature and only confident at all the wrong moments. I can relate to the flashbacks of how she behaved in her twenties — cocky on the inside, thinking all men want her, and that all women are competition. In her married thirties, she didn’t grow up at all. It was during the one of the earliest flashbacks to Rachel’s time working the Massachusetts state house for Senator Tom Rafferty where I thought, she’s off her rocker. Rachel insists that she took the internship with the enemy in order to learn her tactics from the inside. Then after her three months, she and Jack can go on to form their law partnership, Kirkland & North.

Jack Kirkland was rarely a decent human being through most of the book. He’s a defense attorney — and while that seems noble especially as one with such a great record that he gets to be on “the murder list” of attorneys for the defense in capital cases — Jack is a gaslighting misogynist in his marriage. Generally, I love rooting for the underdog — the one who will correct the system’s mistakes, but Jack was either a sulky uninteresting grump or a domineering blowhard in court and at home.

This brings us to the prosecutor, Martha Gardiner. Talk about unlikeable. She’s a spinster (yes I’m using this word intentionally) who lives only for work. She doesn’t have a single hobby or interest outside of her cases. There was one mention of a small garden patch, but we never get to see Martha being tender and cultivating life in that way. She’s mean, manipulative, and as Rachel discovers — she will twist the law (or break it) herself in order to win convictions. Martha is conniving, but also damn brilliant just like Jack. It’s no wonder they’re enemies.

She’d kill anyone who got in her way. Probably wouldn’t even need a weapon, just her razor-sharp words or vicious criticism.

If I were being informal, I’d say Martha needs some vodka and weekend of unbridled ecstasy-enthralling sex. For days. Until she sees God to bring out a personality in her. I worked for someone just like Martha Gardiner and this was giving me flashbacks. I couldn’t suss out a single likeable part of her character.

We learn that everyone is guilty of something, even the clients Jack is trying to defend. Maybe they didn’t murder, but they’re drug-dealers or thieves. Every single person mentioned in The Murder List has something sordid about them and that includes the victim, Danielle Zander.

There were specific moments when I felt for Rachel North and sympathized with her situation. She clashed with her husband constantly over her internship and he was a total dick to be blunt about it. He would give her the cold shoulder; try to manipulate her; try to get her to quit; pretend he had more important things than her; and so on. It wasn’t until Rachel had an epiphany about Martha Gardiner and presented Jack with the greatest gift ever — telling him he was right. Once that happened, Jack was magically head over heels for his wife again. It was another moment where I truly hated Jack. He only loved Rachel when she was his loyal lap dog.

It was always the interloping manipulative woman who suffered in those toxic relationships, not the equally reprehensible man.

Eventually, I softened on Jack the more it progressed and landed at the WHAM-BAM denouement. He was able to stand by Rachel when — ethically speaking — he should have asked someone else to help her.

If that isn’t enough to win you over to The Murder List readership, believe me when I say that Ryan’s exquisite descriptive details setting the scenes will the trick. Something I noted many times in my copy was how effortlessly she showed the non-verbal communication of each character: their fingers steepling; their choice of footwear; which seat they chose around a table; what they ordered. They’re all facets that bring the characters to life.

Martha perched on the arm of the couch, signaling this was not a cozy conversation. And it made it her taller.

five star rating

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