Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

The Blurb On The Back:

”They had a secret, the two of them, and there was no better way to start a friendship than with a secret …”

When Hen and Lloyd move into their new house in West Dartford, Massachusetts, they’re relieved to meet, at their first block party, the only other seemingly childless couple in their neighbourhood, Matthew and Mira Dolamore.  Turns out they live in the house immediately next door.

When they’re invited over for dinner, however, things take a sinister turn when Hen thinks she sees something suspicious in Matthew’s study.  Could this charming, mild-mannered college professor really be the person Hen, who has been battling her own problems with depression and medication, thinks he is? Even if she is right, who would believe her?  As Hen’s suspicions grow, she and Matthew are drawn closer together.  But who, if anyone, is really in danger?

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

30-somethings Henrietta ‘Hen’ Mazur and Lloyd Harding have just bought a house in West Dartford, Massachusetts.  Hen is an artist and illustrator, Lloyd is the head of social media marketing for a public relations company in Boston. During a block party on their new street, they meet their next-door neighbours, Matthew Dolamore (a teacher at a nearby private school) and his wife Mira (a salesperson for a software company).

As the only two couples on the street who don’t have children, they strike an instant connection and Mira and Matthew invite Hen and Lloyd to dinner at their place.  But the pleasant evening is marred during a tour of the house when Hen spots something in Matthew’s study that she believes could link him to the unsolved murder of Dustin Miller, a Boston College graduate who used to live on the same street as Hen and Lloyd and who was murdered two and a half years earlier.

Hen is convinced that Matthew had something to do with Dustin’s death but Lloyd is less sure.  Hen suffers from bipolar disorder and has a history of becoming obsessed with people – sometimes to violent effect.  But Hen is certain that she’s right this time and resolves to dig into her neighbour’s life to find out the truth.  What Hen hasn’t counted on though is that Matthew has figured out what she saw that night in his home and he thinks that this could be the start of an interesting relationship …

Peter Swanson’s psychological thriller plays with the reliability of characters, how their psychological disorders can be used against them and how people choose not to see what’s in front of them. However, this book suffers from making its key reveal too early and by making the twist in the ending too obvious so that overall, it just doesn’t rise above its parts to become a satisfying read.

I thought that Swanson did a good job of portraying Hen as someone who has suffered because of her bipolar disorder and who constantly has to deal with the affect that it has on her ability to rely on herself and how others, including her husband, see and treat her. The scenes with Lloyd are particularly good as he is hesitant to believe what she is telling him and yet has good reasons for being reluctant given what we’re told about her history.  Also good is the uneasy relationship that builds between Hen and Matthew once he realises that she’s onto him and while I found Matthew two-dimensional in terms of how Swanson has constructed him (especially his family background and his relationship with his brother Richard), there is a ‘Hannibal Lecter/Clarice Starling’ dynamic to his interactions with Hen that I found genuinely sinister.  This is heightened in turn by Matthew’s relationship with Mira and the chapters shown from her point of view are likewise interesting from a psychological point of view as she does everything she can to not acknowledge the truth about her husband.  In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of this, including a scene between her and Hen after the Dolamores have taken out a restraining order against her because it would have built tension and given more emotional depth to the later plot developments.

The problem is that once Swanson reveals that Matthew is a killer, the tension goes off the boil with the story shifting to how and when he will be caught and whether Hen can convince people of who he really is.  Here, I found Swanson’s plotting involves a high level of contrivance (e.g. the first scene where Hen decides to trail Matthew to see what he’s up to) and the backstory creaks as Swanson tries to reinforce just how unreliable Hen is regarded as a witness.  A twist in Matthew’s backstory is also signalled far too early, which means that the final quarter lacks the drama that it should have had, while a twist in Hen’s back story left me feeling short changed.

All in all, although I did keep turning the pages, I wasn’t as gripped as I should have been, although I would nonetheless check out Swanson’s other books as I think he has some interesting ideas.

BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM was released in the United Kingdom on 7th April 2019.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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