When Mr Right turns out to be Mr Axe Murderer
Fiction, Before We Met Lucie, Whitehouse Bloomsbury, £12.99, hardback, 288 pages
Gone Girl had neon orange lettering on matt black with a demented scribble design. Before We Met has neon pink lettering on matt black with an exploding flower. Its tagline – "The most dangerous lies are those closest to home" – could very well have been the tagline for Gone Girl.
Publishers love a formula, and in the last three years domestic thrillers in the 'Did I Marry an Axe Murderer?' mode have been a lucrative hit. It makes sense. If the search for Mr Right has spawned thousands of romances, then what happens if Mr Right turns out to be Mr Psychopathically Wrong ought to be fertile ground for thousands of thrillers.
Before We Met follows Gillian Flynn's superbly tricksy Gone Girl and SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep – both international bestsellers with Hollywood adaptations in the pipeline – in asking the worrisome question, how well does any wife really know her husband?
Like its predecessors, Before We Met is told from the point of view of a paranoid wife. This one is Hannah, a thirtysomething British advertising executive who lives in New York. She does not like serious relationships and avoids commitment.
One weekend Hannah's friends introduce her to Mark, a handsome fellow Brit who has his own software company. After some initial frostiness on Hannah's part they hit it off. In a matter of months she has quit her job to marry him and make a new, expensive home in London. He, meanwhile, continues to fly between the two cities on business. When he doesn't arrive on his scheduled flight from JFK one Friday, she uncovers a skein of lies, starting with his whereabouts and spooling down through his finances, secretive phone calls to another woman and, finally, a dark secret from the past.
The tension builds revelation by revelation and barely loosens its grip throughout – the kind of thriller to keep you turning pages into the small hours. Even in Hannah's rosy reminiscences of their early romance, there are sinister signs – the door that swings shut "like a jaw" at the beach house where they first meet, the way that Mark just happens to show up at the bookshop where Hannah has gone to bunk off their first date, her brother's odd reaction to their engagement. Then again, perhaps Hannah is being overly suspicious.
Once the central secret is revealed, the quiet tension of the first half dissipates into a more action-packed and rather predictable run of events. Whitehouse has a feel for a compelling plot but she has a tendency to over-write around the edges. And yet at its core the narrative lacks fleshing out. For all the endless time we spend inside Hannah's head, she becomes neither more familiar nor more likeable over the course of 300 pages.
Readers are now savvy to tales where a spouse is not as angelic as he or she seems, where a fiendishly spun tissue of lies and charm eventually gives way to a bloody showdown. With its glamorous protagonists and transatlantic appeal, Whitehouse's novel has film script written all over it. Someone should give Claire Danes a call, pronto: she would make an excellent Hannah.