October 23, 2014
(++++) THE FRIGHTS NEARBY
The Killer Next Door. By Alex Marwood. Penguin. $16.
The Wicked Girls. By Alex Marwood. Penguin. $16.
Really good crime writers do not need to set their novels in an isolated, brooding castle or on a remote island, nor do they require twisted-looking, visibly demented characters either as killers or as red herrings. What they do, what makes their books truly frightening, is to set stories in everyday surroundings and people them with characters so ordinary that even the notion that one of them may perpetrate great evil is chilling. In other words, to quote Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase in a different context, writers such as Alex Marwood explore “the banality of evil,” and their books are all the more frightening as a result.
Marwood is the pseudonym of British author Serena Mackesy, who wrote four books under her real name – The Temp, Virtue, Simply Heaven and Hold My Hand – before turning to intense crime fiction with The Wicked Girls, published in 2012 and now available in paperback. Mackesy/Marwood is, like her settings, mundane on the face of things: a fiftysomething sometime journalist who taught English for a while and even did some door-to-door selling. Her father was a military historian and both her grandmothers were authors, but there is nothing specific in her background that would seem to connect her with the gritty, realistic and thoroughly ominous settings in which The Wicked Girls and her new book, The Killer Next Door, take place.
The Wicked Girls is a story about a horrible crime that, in a sense, simply happened. The book’s impact comes from the fact that the perpetrators, 11-year-olds named Jade Walker and Annabel (Bel) Oldacre, who are responsible for the death of a four-year-old named Chloe Francis, are themselves victims of social-class expectations and their childhood environment – and may or may not be able to escape those forces as adults. Narratively set 25 years after the crime, featuring the girls of the title as grown women with new names – Jade is now Kirsty Lindsay and Bel has become Amber Gordon – the book seesaws between present and past, revealing details of the original crime bit by bit as Kirsty, now a journalist, looks into a series of attacks on young women in the seaside town of Whitmouth. Kirsty’s work brings her into contact with Amber for the first time in 25 years, after Amber discovers a dead body at Funnland, the amusement park where she works. Aside from the obvious irony of the place’s name, it is very well-chosen for the events of the book: like clowns, intended to bring enjoyment but frequently seeming downright creepy, amusement parks – with their prepackaged rides, modest thrills and general air of seediness – have something vaguely disturbing about them, and it is this undercurrent of things being not quite right that Marwood explores and exploits with considerable skill. Amusement parks are, by definition, crowded, and much of The Wicked Girls deals with the scary aspects of crowds – not only the physically scary ones but also those derived from the tendency of crowds to change subtly, almost imperceptibly, into mobs, motivated by a strange sort of groupthink that prejudges, interprets reality based on those prejudgments, and then acts as if that imagined reality is identical with truth. The Wicked Girls, which won an Edgar Award, has its expected share of twists and turns – it would not be in the murder-mystery/psychological-thriller genre if it did not – but it also has something more: compelling, carefully limned characters who are just ordinary enough so it is easy to imagine living next door to them, totally unaware not only of their past lives but also of their past and current potential for good and evil. The very mundanity of the settings is what makes them most ominous: like the Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the Robert Bloch book on which the movie is based, Funnland and Whitmouth are just real enough to make readers look over their figurative shoulders while reading about what happens there. You never really know, do you, just who lives next door or down the block? If you think you know, based on what you have been told, you can never be quite sure that anyone’s stated biography is true, can you? Thinking too much about this invites paranoia, and that is just what The Wicked Girls produces: a feeling that there are depths in ordinary people that it is not wise to explore too thoroughly, depths from which monsters can spring.
The identical underlying theme is explored from another angle in The Killer Next Door, an otherwise very different mystery set not in a creepy seaside amusement park but in an ordinary urban rooming house. The book’s structure is a well-worn one: a group of people, thrown together by circumstance but otherwise unrelated, bonds because of something horrible that happens – and then the bond starts to sever as people realize that someone in the group perpetrated the gory crime (and it is gory, possibly too much so for some readers). The rundown rooming house where the book is set – think Bates Motel again – stands for the anonymity of big cities everywhere, although Marwood skillfully turns the story into a specific-to-London tale through careful scene painting (indeed, U.S readers should be prepared, here as in The Wicked Girls, to look up some of the British references and vocabulary with which both books are packed). The building’s residents could easily descend into cardboard types, and a couple of them do, but by and large they are well-developed enough so readers will genuinely care about them and fear for them. This is especially the case with Lisa, also known as Collette, who is on the run after seeing her shady ex-boss and his goons beat a man to death. Because Lisa’s mother is dying in a nursing home and Lisa wants to be nearby, she has rented her threadbare room in the shabby boardinghouse – putting herself under the thumb of repulsive landlord Roy Preece (who is a bit too typecast: oily, lecherous, miserly, grossly obese and focused on getting room deposits and rents in cash so he can spend time ignoring the building’s awful-smelling backed-up drains). The other building residents are political-asylum-seeker Hossein Zanjani, elderly longtime resident Vesta Collins, part-time worker Thomas Dunbar, music teacher Gerard Bright, and teenage runaway Cher Farrell. Lisa/Collette moves into an apartment that used to belong to Nikki, a murder victim – and, yes, it gradually becomes clear that she was far from the only one, and that someone in the building is responsible. The story is loosely based on a famous British serial-murder case in which a man named Dennis Nilsen killed at least 12 people between 1978 and 1983. But even readers familiar with that story, which few U.S. readers will likely know, will not find The Killer Next Door spoiled by their knowledge, because what the book is really about is how well you know, or ever can know, the people living just a few feet away from you. It is this theme, so similar to the one Marwood explores in The Wicked Girls, that gives The Killer Next Door both its power and its ability to evoke suspense: there is something chillingly real about the realization that even a person’s stated background may be true or false, may reveal little or much about that person’s true feelings and motives, and may or may not be a good guide to what that person will do and how others should deal with him or her. Both The Wicked Girls and The Killer Next Door are self-contained: Marwood appears to have no interest in centering her mysteries on a recurring detective or other character, and for that reason, she can take the figurative gloves off and have things happen to her characters that are as scary and brutal as she wishes, which in these books can be quite brutal. Indeed, Marwood’s descriptive passages will be a bit much for some readers, taking parts of her books closer to the horror genre than to that of mystery/thriller. Readers should be prepared: the depths of depravity are not to be explored lightly, and Marwood does not shrink from bringing readers into them. Those depths create a decidedly uncomfortable place – made all the more so by the realization that it may be located right next to you.