The Killer Next Door
by Alex Marwood
Penguin (October 28, 2014)
Alex Marwood’s first book, The Wicked Girls (which won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original), was one of my favorite novels of 2013. Shifting back and forth in time, it focused on two women who killed a child together when they were both eleven years old, grew up in separate prisons, and haven’t seen each other since. As adults with new identities and very different lives, they come together again with disastrous consequences. The Wicked Girls is dark and probing, an exquisite psychological suspense novel.
The Killer Next Door, Marwood’s second novel, is a different sort of crime story, creepy and sometimes grotesquely comic, but no less absorbing. The reader learns from the opening pages that the police are investigating the discovery of body parts in a decrepit South London rooming house and that a missing resident named Collette is believed to be a victim—but not the only one. The story then moves back in time to reveal what led up to this point.
Collette, in her thirties, is on the run after witnessing a murder. Using a fake name (she is actually Lisa Dunne) and carrying a bag of cash that she never lets out of her sight, she returns to England after years abroad to see her dying mother. She takes refuge in the anonymity of the rooming house, although it means putting up with a repugnant, lecherous landlord, and moves into the quarters vacated by a young woman who has mysteriously vanished. The other females in residence are Cher, a teenage runaway who survives through petty theft, and Vesta, the independent but motherly woman in her sixties who occupies a basement flat. The male tenants are Hossein, a handsome Iranian seeking political asylum, and two nondescript bachelors named Thomas and Gerard.
One of the men is a serial killer who calls himself The Lover. He keeps his victims’ corpses in his flat as quiet companions until they begin to produce an odor that can’t be covered up with air freshener. Then he dismembers the bodies and disposes of the pieces around the house and down the toilets. The place is plagued with backed-up drains and a stench accentuated by the oppressive heat of summer. When Collette moves in, The Lover is looking for a fresh victim.
The secretive tenants tend to keep to themselves, but one hot night an accident brings them together and sets in motion a continually surprising string of events.
Marwood has the same merciless eye and penetrating insight into human behavior that distinguishes Ruth Rendell’s writing. Although the men are less well realized, the three women are vividly drawn and memorable.
This novel is not for the easily repulsed, and at times the descriptions of disgusting sights, smells, and actions seem repetitive. Yet—again like Rendell—Marwood finds a macabre humor in all these goings-on.
In the final pages, Marwood refrains from escalating the sense of dread into a predictable bloodbath and instead takes a turn that leads to a totally satisfying conclusion. Despite the events leading up to it, the ending allows the reader to close the book with a smile and lingering thoughts about the meaning of friendship and family.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.