Friday, March 3, 2017

Boston Murder Supernova

Peter Swanson, Her Every Fear: A Novel

Young Londoner Kate Priddy worries about everything; she has major anxiety disorder. Too bad some of her anxieties are real. Kate accepts an apartment swap with an American cousin she's never met, to escape the memory of the recent violence she's endured. But the very day Kate arrives in Boston, her new next-door neighbor turns up murdered. Kate tumbles into an investigation so intense and baroque, it threatens to undo all the healing she's accomplished.

Throughout reading this massively intricate thriller, I kept looking forward to writing this review. Peter Swanson crafts a complex plot, populates it with interesting characters, and kicks it into motion so that, the more momentum it has, the more it picks up. I really enjoyed reading this book. Then we get to the resolution, and... um... squeak? It doesn't really resolve, just end, and Swanson kicks the victory to the wrong characters. What a letdown.

The story alternates between four viewpoint characters. Kate is younger than her age, having lost prime years to an abusive lover's violent jealousy. (Swanson withholds exactly what happened for nearly 100 pages, but the suspense is undercut because the secret is explained in the dust flap synopsis.) Her disorder has her seeing menacing boogeymen in dark corners, a tendency she restrains with prescriptions and self-talk. This, sadly, means she winds up missing the real threat.

Alan Cherney lives in the same complex as Kate. His strange obsession with Audrey Marshall, the murdered woman, gives him insight into the investigation, but also makes him creepy. He and Kate have immediate chemistry; perhaps their contrasting neuroses make them soulmates. But the investigation's surprise turns put these two damaged people at odds, and everyone quickly starts doubting everyone else. As if murder wasn't intense enough, who could've guessed romance would make things worse?

Peter Swanson
Corbin Dell, Kate's American cousin, has secrets too. Last time he visited London, he left a trail of destruction nobody's yet cleaned up. He's weirdly cagey about his relationship with the deceased Audrey, and his motivations are contradictory at best. The more the police seek his statement, the more evasive he becomes. Soon, Kate worries that a mere ocean isn't wide enough to protect her from a stranger who might kill to protect his secrets.

Then there's the fourth character. Experienced crime fiction readers know enough to start a suspect list, and test it against mounting evidence, so we quickly determine who really killed Audrey Marshall. The motive remains less clear, and we wonder whether the characters will twig who their real enemy is before the violence has time to escalate. The killer dribbles clues slowly, and not always inadvertently, daring the others to act before becoming the next victims.

Swanson plays out the theme of different ways people see the same event. His story unfolds mostly from Kate's perspective, as she attempts, mostly ham-handedly, to assist the police investigation. Then suddenly, he'll shift to another viewpoint, Alan's or Corbin's or the killer's, and replay the same events with new knowledge, forcing us to re-evaluate what we thought we understood. By replaying single events through multiple frames, Swanson demonstrates the difficulty of truly understanding anything.

We readers progress thus, seeing the same events several times, becoming aware of the real story only by increments. It's a dark story, too: Swanson creates a Stieg Larsson-ish world of subtle, invisible brutality, a world deeply divided between savage criminals and desperate victims. Though I disagree with that Manichean worldview, Swanson nevertheless spins it into a taut, gripping yarn, populated by tragic heroes and ambiguous villains. I found sticking with his story very easy.

Then, in the final forty pages, it whirls apart under its own weight. Swanson creates an overpopulated climax, tosses viewpoint scenes onto previously minor characters, and let's someone else vanquish the monster. I won't reveal the conclusion, since somebody may want to read this book. Its first 285 pages are quite awesome; as I say, only in the final forty pages does it unravel. I just wish the ending had the setup's tense, exciting texture.

I can't entirely blame Swanson. Many of my favorite authors have difficulty writing endings. And perhaps he's set the standard so high, with his rising action, that he couldn't possibly craft a conclusion to measure up. It just hurts, after enjoying the book so much, to see Swanson's story splatter like an egg dropped on a sidewalk. These characters deserve better. They've paid their dues; their conflict deserves a proper resolution, not a sudden stop.

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