William Morrow | 2019
Opening Hook: No one cares about your sports trophies in real life.
Main Character: Catching a killer has never been so boring.
Plot Twisty-ness: Over-the-top, yet done to death.
The first book I ever read by Peter Swanson was The Kind Worth Killing and it totally impressed me enough to grab a four-star rating from my crabby, judgmental ass. Despite the characters being dull as hell, the plot was completely engrossing and the twists, duelling narrations and dark Strangers on a Train-like premise kicked me right in the crotch.
Since then, I’ve picked up Swanson’s work a few more times with optimistic expectations and have struggled with each reading. Fuck me for being positive, I guess. Before She Knew Him is no exception to that struggle. It’s better than All the Beautiful Lies (which was a goddamn snoozer,) but it’s still not touching me the way my first time with Swanson did (that’s what she said.)
This, like a lot of Swanson’s work, seems to borrow heavy inspiration from Hitchcock, but just isn’t doing it as well as the original or adding anything new to the template. Before She Knew Him has serious Rear Window vibes when Hen and her douchebag husband, Lloyd, move to a small town outside of Boston so that Hen can find some peace and quiet while attempting to get the symptoms of her bipolar disorder under control. She’s an artist who works from home, and wouldn’t you just know it, she eventually suspects her neighbour, Matt, is a serial killer. BUT NO ONE BELIEVES HER dun dun dunnnnn…
Also, a serial killer named Matt? Bruh.
There’s nothing I like more than a murder mystery where the only one who knows what’s going on is a regular citizen spying on her neighbours, with zero power to do anything about what she suspects. This might be because I’ve always felt that would be me one day. I’m nosy as fuck and people are terrible.
What I can’t stand, is that Hen is set up as mentally unwell and suicidal in order to justify her role as the unreliable narrator.
I would like if we could find a new way to frame unreliable narrators, especially of the female variety, that doesn’t require them to be struggling with mental illness. It frames the mental illness as an inherently untrustworthy characteristic in a person.
I could be that other characters just don’t believe you because it’s fucking crazy to accuse a seemingly upstanding neighbour of being a serial killer.
I don’t know how many times Lloyd asked Hen, “are you manic right now?” whenever she expressed, mostly calmly, that she’d witnessed something of concern.
It felt like lazy writing.
Lazy writing with boring characters. I’m starting to suspect this might be a hallmark of Swanson? He doesn’t seem to be able to write characters that are engaging to me. They lack humour, personality or visceral emotions. I find them to be flat and reminiscent of cardboard.
I think if the plot were total fire then the characters wouldn’t matter as much – like in The Kind Worth Killing. But when the plot is just ho-hum, the characters bring everything down a notch to a pace that is sometimes sluggish and overall not captivating.
Hen was annoying and lifeless. Lloyd was a total gaslighting, cheating asshole and there was nothing within his interactions with Hen that explained why she would have ever married him in the first place.
And despite the couple of interactions Matthew had with Hen that could have produced some inappropriate sparks to grab my attention and stir my emotions, he is in the running for the most uninteresting serial killer ever committed to paper.
His psychopathy “twist” was not original and I’d love if we could just retire that trope from here on out. Matthew’s interactions with literally everyone, from his wife, to the woman accusing him of murder, to his evil younger brother, were written in this monotone, overly calm and sleepy voice that was not engaging or thrilling and created zero suspense.
But those are my overly judgmental criticisms, and I can completely see how a nicer reviewer or more casual reader of thrillers would find this interesting and twisted. I, however, can’t really say it’s anything other than just okay, chock-full of standard “twists” that have lost their lustre.
I’m at the point where I think I might have to give up on Swanson because the hype was high with this one among my reader friends, and for me, it’s totally unwarranted.
Catching a killer is dangerous—especially if he lives next door
Hen and her husband Lloyd have settled into a quiet life in a new house outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Hen (short for Henrietta) is an illustrator and works out of a studio nearby, and has found the right meds to control her bipolar disorder. Finally, she’s found some stability and peace.
But when they meet the neighbors next door, that calm begins to erode as she spots a familiar object displayed on the husband’s office shelf. The sports trophy looks exactly like one that went missing from the home of a young man who was killed two years ago. Hen knows because she’s long had a fascination with this unsolved murder—an obsession she doesn’t talk about anymore, but can’t fully shake either.
Could her neighbor, Matthew, be a killer? Or is this the beginning of another psychotic episode like the one she suffered back in college, when she became so consumed with proving a fellow student guilty that she ended up hurting a classmate?
The more Hen observes Matthew, the more she suspects he’s planning something truly terrifying. Yet no one will believe her. Then one night, when she comes face to face with Matthew in a dark parking lot, she realizes that he knows she’s been watching him, that she’s really on to him. And that this is the beginning of a horrifying nightmare she may not live to escape. . .