“A mash-up of international spy thriller & personal journal, as if Jason Bournes’s Diary had actually been a thing.”
— ORPHAN • AGENT • DAUGHTER • PAWN —
Elise feels like she’s always getting things wrong — from a murderous psychopath as a best friend, to a big sister who’s four years younger, twice as smart, and a real bitch sometimes.
She was the mixed-race child of an unmarried white woman in Apartheid South Africa, then the unsuspecting social experiment of a minority rights activist in Boston. She proved herself to be a capable counterintelligence officer, but was still labeled the office quota-filler. While working undercover, she became close with the people she was investigating.
And they tried to put a bullet in her head.
Now she’s out after nine years in federal prison — physically scarred, emotionally damaged, and neurotic as hell. She’s offered a job by an ultra-secretive security company, tracking a financial con artist who’s targeting one of the world’s most powerful & ruthless men. Her gut tells her to have nothing to do with it, but the money they offer is her best shot at starting over. If she goes, it may mean never coming back. If caught, she’ll be the one thrown back into prison. Of course, she has to survive it all first.
The problem is, there’s a troubled little girl inside of her who keeps getting underfoot, threatening to trip Elise up every step of the way.
She’s done dumber things before. Many times. She considers it her gift.
Serrell explores Elise’s history with flashbacks—to her childhood, the death of her biological mother, battles with her sisters, and involvement with various criminals, among other events—but the delineation between the present and the past is not always clear. The frequent jumps to different periods interrupt the flow of the main narrative, and characters from various eras pile up without receiving much development. The purpose of Elise’s journey becomes clearer towards the novel’s conclusion, but the slow plot doesn’t benefit from a sudden final rush of happenings.
Elise is a complex character. Her mixed-race heritage (African-American father, white South African mother) leaves her feeling like an outsider in both her parents’ cultures, and her facial scars, which she’s always conscious of, isolate her further. Her family and professional history and ambiguous morals set her up as someone who can go nearly anywhere and do nearly anything. She’s equally comfortable nannying her sister’s infant daughter in Belgium, flirting with a 16-year-old barista in Iceland, and shooting a former associate in the head in Los Angeles. Even when the story drags, readers will enjoy exploring Elise’s fascinating character.
Takeaway: Readers interested in character more than suspense will warm to the intriguing heroine of this twisty novel.
Great for fans of David Baldacci’s A Minute to Midnight, Lee Child’s Blue Moon.
Design and typography: B
Marketing copy: B-
In Eric Serrell’s literary spy thriller Don’t Tell Mom About This, a broken agent takes on a deadly mission.
An undercover FBI operation gone awry sends Elise to prison, scarred both emotionally and physically. Nine years later, Elise finds herself undercover once again, working for a security company that pays well, and this time tracking a con artist who targets even worse criminals.
Post-prison, Elise feels that she has no choice but to slip back into the life. Still, time and circumstances have taken a toll, and she struggles internally, her inner voice proving all too eager to lead her astray. In the course of her globe-spanning assignment, Elise walks a fine line between achieving the mission’s goals and surviving.
The narrative focus is on Elise’s mission, but there’s a staggering amount of backstory and asides along the way. Elise is a complicated heroine: she grew up in South Africa, the daughter of mixed parents, her life complex in twists and turns. Most of her reflection unfolds in a stream-of-consciousness style and as a diversion whenever she has a moment to herself. A wide range of social commentary and gender politics plays in to her unusual story.
The prose captures Elise’s voice and never strays from it. Every scene and conversation is framed through her eyes and unusual perspective. Sentences are shorter and staccato when her emotions rise; they unfurl more when she’s calmer and introspective. The variety is engaging, and all of the pieces come together in the satisfying resolution.
Don’t Tell Mom About This is a heartfelt thriller whose spy elements are a light cover for deeper issues.
JOHN M. MURRAY (January / February 2020)