The Woman in the Window

shopping   Although I had sworn off all books with a girl or woman in the title  and anything recommended by Gillian Flynn, I read The Woman in the Window in one sitting after a fellow reader insisted, giving me the real name for the A.J. Finn pseudonym.  If you are a Hitchcock fan, you will see traces of favorites like Gaslight and Vertigo in the plot, with Rear Window playing a leading role.   If you are an astute problem solver, you might figure out who the real villain is – I didn’t.  If you want a thrilling psychological drama, with an unbalanced Ph.D. (psychologist) as the lead character, The Woman in the Window will keep you turning pages to the finish.

Anna is an agoraphobic psychologist, who drinks her day away with red wine while keeping tabs on her neighbors in her stylish and expensive neighborhood, through the lens of her camera.  Although Finn offers hints for the cause of her disability, the reason is revealed much later, after Anna has befriended the new neighbor, psychoanalyzed the frail son, and thinks she has witnessed a murder.  The author maintains the suspense by exaggerating Anna’s helplessness while, at the same time, teasing with references to the old black and white horror/mystery movies she continually watches during the day – when she is not watching her neighbors.  The actor James Stewart plays in the background while Anna tries to decipher what has happened – has she tipped over into insanity or witnessed a crime.  No spoilers here – have your own good time reading it, maybe with a glass of red wine – and all the lights on.

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The Fall Guy

9780393292329_198   James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a psychological thriller with the same eerie flavor as Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.  With astute observations of those around him,  Lasdun’s unreliable narrator is as literate as he is lethal and downright creepy.

When Matthew, an out of work chef, accepts an invitation from his wealthy cousin Charlie, a recently dismissed hedge fund manager, to spend the summer at his luxurious mountainside retreat, their cohabitation seems relatively peaceful at first.  Matthew occupies the guest house and cooks the meals, while Charlie and his wife, Chloe, while away the days swimming, reading, and practicing yoga. Their conversations are friendly yet reserved, with an underlying vein of Matthew’s unrequited love for his cousin’s wife and his jealousy of Charlie’s success. Charlie is overbearing and entitled (he has a million and a half dollars in cash in his home safe), while he vacillates between being the gracious savior of Matthew’s moneyless circumstances and acting as the overlord expecting undue fealty for his benevolence.

As the story slowly unveils secrets in the characters’ past, Lasdun’s descriptions of Matthew’s gourmet meals are mouth-watering, with exquisite attention to detail.  This detail continues with Chloe’s project of photographing county mailboxes and creating gardens around the house, lulling the reader into thinking nothing bad will happen after all.  Matthew’s private rants about his bad luck growing up without a father who disappeared after making bad investments, his private schooling abruptly interrupted by being caught dealing drugs, and his unsuccessful forays into the restaurant business, all seem innocuous – the quiet despair of a depressed person, not the festering revenge of a psychopath.

When Matthew decides to secretly follow Chloe on one of her photographing expeditions, and discovers she is having a secret affair with another man, the narrative quickly turns into a Hitchcockian drama. To reveal too much would spoil the plot; Lasdun uses clever twists and red herrings to draw the reader into the maze of deception, revealing more past history as possible motives for the characters’ actions.  The denouement is unexpected – I backtracked to reread pages, thinking I must have missed something because the sudden change in the action took me by surprise – not at all what I had been led to expect.  The ending is a little rattling, but the murderer (did I tell you there’s a murder?) is caught.

Lasdun includes a few phrases worth remembering. One easy to apply to the next person you meet who is pretentiously cheerful –

…”a hypocrite in whom dissembling graciousness had become habit…”

I read the book from the library, but I couldn’t help thinking how well the book would play on Audible with Matthew’s British accent.  The beginning is a little slow, but once the action starts, it would be hard to fall asleep listening.

 

 

The Bird Tribunal

51ykn975jsl  After reading a review of Norwegian author Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal, I had to have it.  What better way to experience a psychological Gothic thriller than to listen to the British intonations of reader Penelope Rawlins.  The hairs on the back of my neck tingled as soon as she started – “My pulse raced as I traipsed through the silent forest…”  But, as the plot gained momentum, listening was just too slow for me.  I downloaded the book to Kindle, using the convenient cloud feature to switch back and forth from reading to listening on Audible.

Secrets are the catalyst; the cautious telling is punctuated with surprising revelations and a nod to Bronte’s Jane Eyre with Sigurd, the brooding handsome landlord with a mysterious past, and Allis, the fragile yet determined heroine.  As the story escalates, the outcome seems predictable, yet the ending is still a shocker.

After being caught in an affair with her married boss (how they get caught is one of the funniest sections of the book), Allis Hagtorn, a television newscaster, travels to a new job as a housekeeper and gardener on an isolated fjord to recover and atone.  Her new employer has Rochester moments of attraction, and eventually the two become lovers.  Suspicion lingers in the air with clues from the nasty shopkeeper’s innuendo to the gulls who attack Allis in a scene right out of Hitchcock’s The Birds.

Although the translation offers some strange substitutions in the narration, the author is quick to supply contextual meanings, and the story is great fun – whether you hear it or read it.

The Girl on the Train

9781594633669_p0_v3_s260x420Although Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train has been at the top of the bestseller list, I have resisted reading the book – because reviewers have compared the story to Gillian Flynn’ Gone Girl – and I did not want to revisit a sordid tale with miserable characters and an ending with no acceptable possibilities.  But The Girl on the Train is so much better.  Like Alfred Hitchcock, Hawkins understands that the audience wants twists and turns, red herrings, and scary scenes in a psychological crime thriller – but above all, readers want closure and relief – hopefully with the villain finally being defeated.  Hawkins, unlike Flynn, delivers.

The story flips back and forth from several unreliable narrators – basically, almost everyone is lying to someone.  Rachel is the girl on the train; she imagines lives for people she sees in houses along a short rail stop.  Have you ever played that game sitting in a restaurant or a park, watching people go by – wondering what their lives are like – sometimes creating fantasies about who they are and where they are going?  A friend tells me she has done this with her husband, as she blithely identifies who belongs to the neighborhood and who is on vacation.  Rachel has an insider’s view to the game; she is divorced from Tom who lives in one of the houses with his new wife and baby.  A few doors down, she creates a better life for neighbors Megan and Scott, assigning the perfect marriage to this couple – until she sees Megan with another man, as the train moves on.

Eventually, all these characters connect – and Megan’s disappearance fuels the beginning of the mystery.  Hawkins cleverly introduces police detectives and a psychiatrist into the mix, as Rachel’s credibility as the key narrator continues to fall apart.  As each character’s fatal flaw unravels, Hawkins changes the scene and the possibilities of whodunnit:  Rachel, an alcoholic with blackouts, leaving her wondering what she did in those empty hours; Scott, Megan’s husband, a secret wife beater; Tom, the corrosive liar.  Even Anna, the new wife with a guilt complex, becomes a possible co-conspirator.

Since it’s more fun to read the story yourself and try to figure out the next turn, I won’t tell you more or offer any spoilers.  But – if you liked the dark side of Gone Girl, you will probably like The Girl on the Train.  And – if you did not like Gone Girl – you will find The Girl on the Train a better thought-out drama.

The Girl on the Train is Paula Hawkins’ debut in the crime thriller genre, and I can’t wait until her next book.  I may even check out some of earlier books –  romance novels, written under her pseudonym, Amy Silver.

 

He’s Gone by Deb Caletti

9780345534354_p0_v1_s260x420Dani Keller wakes up one morning to find her husband, Ian, has disappeared.  If this sounds like a familiar theme (aka “Gone Girl”), Deb Caletti’s psychological thriller – He’s Gone – will surprise you with its gripping narrative that is different – and with a surprise ending that is satisfying.

As the tale unfolds, the lives of Dani Keller and her choices of men become the catalyst for the mystery of her second husband’s fate.  Having escaped her physically abusive first husband, Dani finds that her second husband is obsessed with control and not the soul mate and rescuer she had imagined.  When he mysteriously disappears, she may be grateful – but did she kill him?  With clever revelations of past and present lives, Caletti keeps you guessing until the end.

As a National Book Award finalist for her teen story,”Honey, Baby, Sweetheart,” a coming of age story of a teenage girl with a rebel boyfriend and a mother who is a librarian (that I now have on my to-read list), Caletti is well known for her young adult novels.  He’s Gone is her first adult novel.  A fellow reader alerted me to this book, and I read it in one sitting – just had to know whodunit – fun and engaging.