A largely entertaining thriller which takes inspiration from a classic but manages to do its own thing with the basic concept.
Originally published in 2015
In a tantalizing set-up reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train… On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the stunning and mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing very intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage that’s going stale and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. Ted and his wife were a mismatch from the start—he the rich businessman, she the artistic free spirit—a contrast that once inflamed their passion, but has now become a cliché.
But their game turns a little darker when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, “I’d like to help.” After all, some people are the kind worth killing, like a lying, stinking, cheating spouse. . . .
Back in Boston, Ted and Lily’s twisted bond grows stronger as they begin to plot Miranda’s demise. But there are a few things about Lily’s past that she hasn’t shared with Ted, namely her experience in the art and craft of murder, a journey that began in her very precocious youth.
Suddenly these co-conspirators are embroiled in a chilling game of cat-and-mouse, one they both cannot survive . . . with a shrewd and very determined detective on their tail.
Ted Severson is waiting for a long haul flight when he meets and starts talking with Lily Kintner. Bonding over drinks, the pair agree to play a game where they will only tell the truth to each other. He tells her about the state of his marriage after he discovered his wife Miranda has been cheating on him with the man building the couple’s new luxury home. When Lily asks Ted what he will do about it he suggests that he really wants to kill her and is surprised when she offers to help.
It’s a setup that pays homage to one of my favorite novels, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, though I should stress Swanson will ultimately take his story in quite a different direction. While that story placed her two would-be killers at odds with one another in a twisted relationship of dependency and resentment, Swanson’s characters by contrast are far more stable and composed. There is also a difference in the aspects of the situation the author finds interesting. While Highsmith focuses on the decay of a relationship, Swanson places his focus on exploring Lily’s history and her psychology.
He does this by frequently switching perspectives, initially alternating between Ted and Lily before eventually bringing some other voices into the story. This allows the author to explore the contrast between how something appears and its reality, at times offering second perspectives on things we have already experienced. At several points in the story this is used quite effectively to change our understanding of what is happening and to move the action in a different direction.
While I do not want to be too specific about the specific plot developments, I would suggest that the narrative has two distinct phases. The first involves the planning of the murder and our learning more about Lily’s past. This is slower and more characterful, with a focus on understanding the different personalities at play. There is a noticeable shift that occurs about halfway through the novel however that sees the novel take on a greater focus on the action and it incorporates some elements of peril for the characters.
I enjoyed aspects of both approaches, though on balance I found the second half of the novel more unpredictable and engaging. I was taken quite off-guard by how quickly the story accelerates and I appreciated the expansion of the narration to include some additional perspectives. This not only appealed because of the variety it adds but because it gives the reader a sense of discovery as they can suddenly make connections that expand and complicate the story.
One of the other aspects of that second half of the novel that I particularly enjoyed is the cat and mouse game that several of the characters begin to engage in. Swanson handles this really well, allowing us to see one character make their moves and then, in the following chapter, we see a different character prepare and respond. I anticipated some developments and was surprised by others but even when I felt I knew where things were headed I was generally pleased by how it was realized.
Of the characters we get to know in the course of the novel, Lily was the most interesting to me. There are some aspects of that story that are pretty dark and potentially triggering but I felt that by the end of the novel I had a clear understanding of who she was and what lay behind those actions. That is not to say though that this character is always relatable or that the reader is expected to be sympathetic to them – I don’t think any of the characters here come off particularly well in that regard however.
It’s that last point that I feel makes the book ultimately work. Swanson creates a cast of people the reader is bound not to like. Rather than making us love these characters and want their happiness, our interest is in exploring their machinations and seeing how they will be brought down.
The novel builds a sense of tension well as the story approaches its conclusion and I was gripped by the chapters exploring the fallout from what happens. After several big twists earlier in the story, that moment felt quite tidy and surprisingly straightforward in comparison but I think that partly reflects how clearly some elements had been set in place earlier.
That is not to say however that I loved everything about this novel. One of my biggest issues with it was with one of the book’s earliest scenes.
While I came to understand the emotions and reasonings behind many of Lily’s actions, I still find the initial conversation between Ted and Lily rather contrived. While some things we learn later in the novel help give that moment new context, I struggled to believe that the conversation would play out as neatly as it does. That may seem strange given my love of Highsmith’s story but there I feel there are some very clear reasons that the suggestion of murder could be lightly brought up and in fact the plot hinges to some extent on the idea that one character was engaging with that conversation purely as fantasy. Here that is far from the case: Ted is taking it seriously. That’s a difficult idea for me to take seriously and I’m afraid that, much as I wanted to, I was never entirely happy with how that scene plays out.
I also found the frequent references to the size or shape of characters’ breasts quite odd and a little off-putting. At first I wondered if this reflected something about the character of Ted but this apparent objectification continues into other strands of the novel. Perhaps the strangest of these is the habit of a police detective of writing lewd limericks about the people of interest in the case. That at least is more understandable from a plotting perspective but I am really not sure why they were deemed necessary or what they were intended to convey.
In spite of those complaints, I do want to commend this book for not only finding inspiration in a classic but figuring out how to take that premise in quite a different direction. Overall, I found this to be a pretty engaging thriller and enjoyed many of the developments and reveals the story has to offer.