Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson - book review: Compelling, creepy and psychologically astute

Since his stunning debut novel, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, five years ago, Peter Swanson has proved that there’s never a dull moment when you are in the company of a top-notch author.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 4th March 2019, 1:55 pm
Updated Monday, 4th March 2019, 2:02 pm
Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson
Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

This acutely perceptive American writer has become a supreme master of psychological chills and thrills, transforming what appears to be ‘cosy domestic’ into something infinitely more dangerous and deadly.

Before She Knew Him is Swanson’s fifth novel and it’s a sizzling slice of his unique brand of domestic noir… tingling with tension, brimming with menace, and shot through here with a hint of seductive gothic.

A sedate suburban drinks and dinner party is the launch pad for a twisting, turning and gripping journey into the mind of an unstable young woman who becomes convinced that her neighbour is a murderer.

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Henrietta (Hen) Mazur and her husband Lloyd Harding have settled into a quiet life in a well-heeled commuter suburb outside Boston, Massachusetts.

After years of instability, children’s books illustrator Hen has found the right cocktail of medications to regulate her bipolar disorder and is feeling more at peace and in control of her life.

At their first neighbourhood party, they are relieved to meet the only other childless couple there, charming, mild-mannered schoolteacher Matthew Dolamore and his wife Mira, and are invited over for dinner at their home which just happens to be next door.

But things take a sinister turn when Hen thinks she spots a familiar object displayed on the shelf in Matthew’s study.

The sports trophy looks exactly like one that went missing from the home of a young man called Dustin Miller who was murdered two years ago.

Hen knows this because she has long had an obsession with this unsolved murder, an obsession she doesn’t talk about any more but which she still can’t fully shake off.

Could her neighbour 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?

Lloyd certainly doesn't seem to believe her and so, forced together, Hen and Matthew start to form an unlikely bond. But who, if anyone, is really in danger?

Swanson is on brilliant form in this intriguing, fast-paced thriller which harnesses the dark atmospherics of Rear Window and the complex characterisation of Patricia Highsmith, and transposes them into a fascinating contemporary setting.

Hen and Matthew are two perfectly created, unreliable narrators, each harbouring dark secrets, each terrifyingly obsessive, and each as unpredictable as the English weather.

And in trademark style, Swanson’s ingenious plotting throws up tantalising clues and then slowly unravels them through a series of shocking revelations, leaving readers confused, bemused and racing to the last page.

Compelling, creepy, and psychologically astute, this is stylish thriller writing at its very best.

(Faber & Faber, hardback, £12.99)