I’d say, by now the reader kind of knows what to expect from a Swanson novel…
It’s a world populated by smart, affluent characters who work in the arts or education, who live in smart townhouses or beach cottages, who have skin the colour of skimmed milk and hearts as hard and shiny as coal. Add to this the action, usually malicious, revengeful and obsessive and the way each story skilfully weaves in both the threat of a killer and the suspense of the protagonist becoming one and it makes for a great read.
But that’s all changed now. This latest Swanson completely blindsided me.
It starts off quite familiar, the protagonist, Abigail, young, beautiful and working in publishing, is being stalked by the man she’s had a one-night stand with on her bachelorette weekend. Scotty’s decided he’s desperately in love with her and wants her to call off her wedding to Bruce.
She tries to handle this sensibly, and I was lulled into a false sense of security here by this set up, and the slow burn first chapters exploring her dating history in minuscule detail. Swanson put so much into her dating history,I thought this was the whole story, the stalker thing and I thought, okay… he’s going to become a threat and she’s going to fight back and it’s going to escalate and then he’s going to get it, but no…
About a third of the way through, it becomes obvious that Abigail (and the reader) have underestimated the threat Swanson has in mind for us. There’s scheming afoot but for a change it’s not coming from the protagonist’s side, so suddenly as a reader we realise the protagonist has no control over the danger.
This was handled so well! Swanson leads us, skipping and whistling, down a dark alley which we’re sure Abigail can handle before he flips the top off the dumpster, basically sets fire to it and then throws a can of petrol in there for good measure.
The whole story becomes so tense and so genuinely scary, veering dangerously close to horror, that for a moment I wasn’t sure I could carry on. If it was going where I thought it was going, I didn’t need to read that, but of course, it is a Peter Swanson and not some penny dreadful, so I carried on reading with one eye open and the other clamped tightly shut. And thank god I did because it paid off.
I know this story freaked a lot of readers out. I read this book three weeks ago and sat down to write a review but couldn’t. I was still too shaky from it and I wasn’t sure why. Some people found the story unrealistic, and the size of the action is huge but the mechanics of it are not. I hope this isn’t realistic but if it popped up in the news next week that is was, I wouldn’t be surprised.
It comes down to ever changing shape of casual misogyny in our society, the way it pervades everything and everyone. Anyone who’s ever tried to convince a man that another man is a creep will recognise their experiences in this story. The blatant disbelieve makes us think, ‘Are they all in on this?’ to the point that we are afraid to trust any man even the ones who we should, and Swanson plays on this angle and fear very well in this story. Abigail is always one decision away from being saved or being killed. It’s just so incredibly tense!
The tension is made real by the character of Abigail because she’s real. She has the agency and will-power often reserved for male character in fiction, she’s not a lush, nor unreliable and she could be us or a friend of ours. I love how he writes from a female perspective so convincingly and in this novel especially. This story, like The Kind Worth Killing, proves he’s one of the very few who do listen when women tell him about their creeps. He listens and he gets ideas for great stories! Can’t wait for whatever comes next!