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Review: As Long As We Both Shall Live

Plot twists, unreliable narrators, and long buried secrets populate JoAnn Chaney’s novel.
Photo: Marianna Caicedo · The Sentry

Local author’s second book is twisted, investigative fun

Matt and Marie have been married for 20 years and are looking to rekindle their marriage. They plan a romantic getaway into Rocky Mountain National Park for a weekend full of fresh air, breathtaking views, and falling in love again—until Marie falls off a sheer-faced cliff and into the Three Forks River rushing 100 feet below. Matt runs down the mountain, shouting for help from strangers, but something doesn’t seem right. When detectives learn that Matt’s first wife also died under suspicious circumstances, Matt rises to the top of Detectives Marion Spengler and Ralph Loren’s suspect list.

If that story rings a bell, that’s because it’s based on true events. Author JoAnn Chaney heard the story of Harold Henthorn, who pushed his wife off of a cliff in Rocky Mountain National Park and twisted it into her most recent novel As Long As We Both Shall Live, released Jan. 15.

“I think that was the initial inspiration for the story,” author JoAnn Chaney said. “But As Long As We Both Shall Live takes some big turns away from that story.”

Many fans of anything and everything true crime could feverishly explain the story of Harold Henthorn that they memorized late at night while watching reruns of Dateline. Here’s the condensed version: He and his first wife, Lynn, were driving down a remote road in 1995 when the tire needed replacing. As any good husband would, he had his wife get under the car to fix it. Suddenly, the car falls and crushes Lynn, leaving Henthorn without a wife and with a sizeable life insurance policy. A brokenhearted Henthorn later remarried to an eye surgeon, Toni. To celebrate their 12th anniversary, Harold surprised Toni with a romantic getaway into the Rocky Mountains. All is well until Toni loses her balance atop a steep cliff the duo planned on hiking to, and bleeds out 130 feet below. A once again widowed Harold walks away from the event without any witnesses and $4.5 million from a life insurance policy.

If that sounds pretty fucked up, wait until getting into the thick of As Long As We Both Shall Live. Characters’ intentions are muddled, morality is blurred, and right and wrong are indistinguishable, both from the grieving family and the distressed detectives.

But that wasn’t always Chaney’s perspective of writing. When she was a teenager, her understanding of people’s intentions changed forever, all while working the night shift at a gas station.

Around 2 or 3 a.m., a man entered her store. He didn’t buy anything. He didn’t approach the register. He just stood, seemingly waiting for something. That something was the police, who barreled into the parking lot, then into the store. Just as suddenly as he arrived, the man in the store had vanished. But he’s not the one to worry about.

“There were three men out by the dumpster that had been watching me,” Chaney said. “They were waiting for me to either come out or they were going to wait for no customers to be around and they were going to grab me.”

The loitering man overheard the group in the parking lot, alerted police, and stayed in the store long enough to ensure the teenage attendant would be safe. That realization of never knowing the ulterior motives of a stranger was then introduced into her writing.

“There’s all sorts of mechanics in work that probably saved my life,” Chaney said. “So that’s how a book in my head is built.”

Take the book’s protagonist as an example. Envision a stereotypical hard-ass cop, and boom, that’s Detective Loren.

“I wanted him to be a guy that everyone else on the police force kind of scared of, he does crazy things, but what they don’t see is that behind the scenes he does some things for a good reason,” Chaney explains.

As the investigation into the death of Marie begins, Loren’s past in Ohio resurfaces when an investigator is attempting to connect him to the murder of his previous partner.

While looking into Matt’s intentions, Loren’s partner, Detective Spengler, has to question his every move, deciding whether or not she’s at risk—but she’s not afraid, she’s seen worse. Spengler’s now a homicide detective after years of working in the vice unit, acting undercover in prostitution and sex trafficking busts. If there’s anything she can handle, it’s a dangerous man.

At a glance, both Loren and Spengler fulfill the hardened cop stereotypes, but their intentions are hidden. Yes, Loren is unorthodox and intimidating to those on the force, but if someone gets between him and the one person he loves, he will go all out in protecting them. Yes, at a glance, Spengler is a run-of-the-mill female cop, but after growing up fast and being hit on by every teenage boy, she’s unafraid to stand her ground, making them feel the same pain they inflict on her. The heroes are all morally ambiguous and perfectly fit to solve the case.

On the surface, Matt is an aggressive, sleazy husband to Marie. After his first wife, Janice, was shot in front of him, he threw himself into a new life and a new job. Along the way, his second wife Marie gets swallowed up in his chasing and selling of the American dream. But there’s more to him than just that, right?

Same with Marie. Anyone who is the alleged victim of being pushed off of a cliff and left to bleed out and drown is automatically given mercy. Anyone would be but especially Marie. She’s spent her life as a stay at home mom, pouring everything into her daughters’ high school’s PTA. As Spengler digs into her “friend’s” retellings of her, more questions arise. But she’s the victim here, so she can’t be what they say she is.

More than the characters, As Long As We Both Shall Live is one thing on the surface, before sending readers down a sudden right turn into a different story. Then again, once the story is settled, it changes again. Sprinkled with red herrings and misdirections, As Long As We Both Shall Live is just as unreliable as the narrators.

At its core, Chaney’s latest focuses on the darker side of relationships. Whether it’s a romantic relationship like Matt and Marie’s, a professional relationship like Detective Loren and Spengler’s, or between family members like Matt and his daughters, there’s always something hiding.

“Whenever you have a long-term relationship you kind of build some resentment up for anyone,” Chaney said.

As Long As We Both Shall Live is the perfect response to the Gone Girl style of convoluted stories. Instead of dwelling on one broken relationship, the fractures are uncountable. Instead of one major plot twist, they’re uncountable. As Long As We Both Shall Live is exactly what it should be. The richness to the characters drive the story down an unpredictable yet inevitable path. The chapters are short and fly by, leaving readers hanging on to every word. After all, if Marie had hung on, maybe Matt wouldn’t be where he is.

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