“The Murder List”

“The Murder List” by Hank Phillippi Ryan is a chilling story about how quickly a life is changed, and how quickly freedom is lost. The tale begins in a first-person present narrative by Rachel North, a recent graduate from Harvard Law School; she knows the rules and knows that following the rules is the way to get ahead. During her summer internship with District Attorney Martha Gardiner she will be able to learn about the competition from the inside. She shifts to past tense as she reviews actions in her mind, and she constantly reviews and critiques everything. While her thoughts show vulnerabilities, underlying insecurities, lack of self-confidence, and constant drive to improve her status, she presents herself as confident and competent in interactions with the public. 

North is married to successful lawyer Jack Kirkland who also values the rules of law, and uses those rules for every defendant. He wants to win, and mostly he does win. He is on “the murder list,” the select group of highly qualified lawyers whom the state appoints to represent accused murderers who cannot pay for their defense. 

The story begins in the present by detailing the complex and intertwined lives of a triangle of unique but not necessarily likeable characters. These details make the “before” part of the story much more compelling. Readers wonder how they got to “today” through that complicated and entangled past, and how they will navigate the quagmire of the present. 

Sentence construction sets the tone with short descriptions, abrupt sentences, and quick action “We creep toward the house, maybe ten miles an hour. Not a dog barking, not a bird singing, not a lawn mower droning across some needy lawn. I’m in an unmarked car with Ben the SWAT guy, an assistant district attorney, and a search warrant for a suspected murderer’s house.” 

Descriptive details make everything both real and surreal. “I’m living in a snow globe. Outside it was fairy-tale lovely as Beacon Hill could be, especially seeing it from a cozy inside. The gas-lamp-shaped streetlights were illuminated this time of the morning and added a muted persimmon glimmer to the pristine snow.”

The story is multifaceted. Dialogue illustrates the situations; events provide the action, and people and their relationships drive the plot. They have history; all of their lives have intersected in histories filled with crime, deceit, and murder. The bizarre backstories reach into the present with implications, consequences, and complications that readers never expect. 


“The Murder List” gives readers an electrifying look at investigations, trials, judgements, and results from three very different but intersecting perspectives. What was happening, what was important, what was hiding? I received a review copy of “The Murder List” from Hank Phillippi Ryan and Forge Books. It was compelling, and I found a surprise with every turn of the page.