Wednesday 20 September 2017

A satisfying journey along a well-worn path

Thriller: The Girl Before, JP Delaney, Quercus, hardback, 406 pages, €15

Layer of mystery: The Girl Before, like The Girl on the Train, falls within the 'domestic noir' sub-genre
Layer of mystery: The Girl Before, like The Girl on the Train, falls within the 'domestic noir' sub-genre
The Girl Before by JP Delaney
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Say hello and welcome to the latest in a seemingly endless line of mystery novels whose title begins with "The Girl…" Never mind that the girl who kicked the hornet's nest, was on the train or in the ice, or most of these titular girls are actually women, some of them past their twenties (can you really call a thirtysomething a "girl"?).

The hook obviously works and the public can't get enough of these novels. Indeed movie rights to this one have already been sold to Ron Howard, even before publication. And weirdly enough, another thriller with this exact title was released only last August.

This version of The Girl Before is written by one JP Delaney, a pseudonym for a successful author in a different genre. I like that, putting the book out under a nom de plume: it adds another layer of mystery.

Like Girl on the Train, Delaney's book falls within the "domestic noir" sub-genre, and pulls the familiar trick of using more than one narrator to build up the story. Here our tellers are twentysomething Emma, three years in the past, and thirtysomething Jane, speaking to us today. The similarities between them are several, and striking.

Back then Emma moved into One Folgate Street, a mind-bending minimalist masterpiece of a house in London; now Jane is making the same move. Both are slim and attractive with dark hair. Both recently suffered trauma: a burglary and miscarriage respectively.

Both work, or at least used to, in some vaguely defined area of PR. That's another genre convention: people always have jobs in media or PR or galleries… or architecture, which brings us to Edward Monkford.

He's a "starchitect": brilliant, cold, ambitious, obsessive. All good attributes when designing buildings, no doubt, but not so beneficial to your personal life. Monkford is a horribly compelling character: eccentric and dislikeable at best, seriously weird and borderline-frightening at worst.

He had a fling with Emma when she lived in One Folgate Street, now he's doing likewise with Jane. Both resemble his late wife, who died alongside their infant son and is buried in the foundations of this very house. And Emma, as Jane soon discovers, was found dead in One Folgate Street, at the foot of its studiously dangerous open stairs.

Did she kill herself? Was she killed? And is Jane next on the list?

A straightforward enough plotline, then - essentially, what happened to Emma and who was responsible - they're not reinventing the thriller wheel here. But Delaney crafts The Girl Before with enough quality that, as a reader, you're happy to go along.

The writing is crisp and unfussy. Characterisation is lucid and persuasive, especially Emma, who reveals herself to be something quite different from what we first assume.

And while the story is familiar, the plotting is exceptionally well thought-through. Everything makes sense and feels like a logical consequence of what's come before; while there are twists, none are annoyingly left-field or thrown in for the sake of it. The surprises surprise but don't feel random or unfitting.

I recently read someone describe domestic noir as "manipulative" and inauthentic - in contrast, I suppose, to great, groundbreaking crime-fiction writers like Chandler or Elmore Leonard. That's accurate to an extent, but does it really matter?

All books are manipulative in some way, even high art; all are engineered with the intention of engendering certain responses in the reader. And yes, many crime novels are essentially rethreads, or amalgamations, of existent works - this one included - but I don't see too much harm in that.

If you want deeply satisfying, challenging art, crack open Dante or The Atrocity Exhibition. If you want the literary equivalent of a sugary treat, The Girl Before is like a cold can of Coke: there isn't much nutritional value to it, but I slugged it down in one big gulp and it was very enjoyable.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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