Before She Knew Him: A Novel
“a compulsively readable psychological thriller with so many twists and turns you'll need a roadmap to keep track of where you are.”
Henrietta, Hen for short, and her husband Lloyd are invited to dinner by their next-door neighbors, Mira and Matthew. It isn't long before they suspect they have moved next door to a murderer.
At least Hen thinks so when she notices a familiar item on a shelf in their house, a sport fencing trophy that belonged to a murder victim in the town they had just moved from.
Hen raises the alarm with her husband and later with the police, but her allegations are suspect. She's being treated for a mental instability and has a history of making a false accusation.
When the police fail to take action against Matthew, Hen, determined to prove she's not having a mental breakdown, dives into snooping on her own:
"Without thinking, she grabbed her own set of car keys from the hook by the front door and went outside, speed walking toward the Volkswagen as Matthew's taillights receded down Sycamore Street . . . she backed into a driveway across the road . . . from there she had a good view . . . and she waited for him to emerge from his car, but he didn't . . . It was clear that he was there to watch someone, just as Hen was doing. But who?"
Matthew is a puzzle. The author lets you know early on in the book that he's a killer who lulls himself to sleep by reliving his murders or planning new ones. Many of the chapters are told from his point of view. Readers of suspense find it particularly interesting to get inside the head of a fictional murderer, but Matthew is so full of contradictions it's hard to get a handle on him or his thinking process. Sometimes his motives seem unclear.
But don't make the mistake of interpreting that as a failing of the author. When you get to the end of the book, you'll realize he knew exactly what he was doing.
After a plodding beginning somewhat bloated with irrelevant details, the pace picks up to NASCAR speed when Matthew confronts Hen in her art studio, and later revs up even more with revelations about his childhood, and descriptions (some graphic) of his murders:
"Matthew knelt on one knee, lifted the baton again, and brought it down as hard as he could on the same spot he'd hit before. Instead of a solid thud, this time the sound was more like a splintering crack. Matthew stood quickly, prepared to jump back in case there was blood . . . He wondered if he should hit him again just to make sure, but was worried about overdoing it, about his baton sinking into brain matter. He would never be able to stomach that."
Later he remembers a spirit crushing childhood memory about his mother and father:
"He pictured it now, the look on her face clearing the dinner dishes, picking hers up from the floor . . . one of those nights when his father had made her eat on all fours down on the kitchen linoleum, her food mushed together in a dog dish. She'd done it, of course, because she knew the consequences of not doing it, but her face had remained a frozen mask, impervious to the humiliation . . ."
Matthew also has discordant feelings about his brother Richard whom he calls a monster, and whose behavior he disapproves of. Yet he makes a point of sneaking his brother into the house for a visit when Mira is out of town even though he barely tolerates Richard's presence.
Foodies will get a kick out of the way Swanson mentions every morsel of food and sip of drink consumed by every character throughout the book—center cut cod, Ritz crackers, salmon with a spicy Asian glaze, veggie burger, clam chowder, egg salad sandwich, mulligatawny soup, French bread pizza, chicken breasts, broccoli, Diet Coke, two bags of salt and vinegar chips, prime rib special with wine, a Rusty Nail, lentil soup, and so much more.
It's difficult to say anything further about this tightly plotted suspense without inadvertently revealing story ruining spoilers. This is a compulsively readable psychological thriller with so many twists and turns you'll need a roadmap to keep track of where you are. It's a story of perversion, cruelty, and deceit. Peter Swanson skillfully uses it all to keep readers off kilter and breathless to the very last page.