Saturday 17 August 2019

Shari Lapena returns with a domestic thriller lacking in thrills

Thriller: Someone We Know, Shari Lapena

Bantam Press, hardback, 309 pages, €14.99

Repetitive: Lapena doesn't quite hit the mark
Repetitive: Lapena doesn't quite hit the mark
Someone We Know

Meadhbh McGrath

Shari Lapena is one of the leading lights in the psychological thriller genre. The Canadian writer, a former lawyer and English teacher, is still riding high on the success of her debut, The Couple Next Door, which became a mainstay on the bestseller lists following its publication in 2016. Her subsequent novel, A Stranger In The House, told a similar tale of suburban paranoia, while she branched out into an Agatha Christie-style 'locked room' mystery in last year's An Unwanted Guest.

With her latest, Lapena returns to domestic noir. Someone We Know opens with suburban mother Olivia Sharpe learning her 16-year-old son Raleigh has been breaking into their neighbours' homes and hacking into their computers.

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Consumed with guilt, Olivia opts to write anonymous letters to the neighbours apologising on behalf of her son, but soon finds herself in a difficult spot when Amanda, the wife of one of those neighbours, turns up brutally murdered in the boot of her car. Everyone assumed she had abandoned her husband, Robert, but now Olivia must confront frightening truths in her own neighbourhood - and under her own roof. Could Robert have killed her? What connection did Amanda have to the other men on her street? And does Raleigh know more than he's letting on?

Lapena is skilled at writing the sort of suspense stories you want to - and must - devour in one sitting, and in that respect, Someone We Know is a perfectly serviceable read. The present tense narrative and twisty plotting ensure you'll be racing through to the end, but unlike her previous novels, those twists don't pack as much of a punch.

The portrait of a leafy suburb brimming with dark secrets is evocatively rendered, with its prying neighbours, intimate betrayals and gossipy book clubs. Yet at those gatherings, it can be tricky to tell characters apart, as the overburdened housewives and curt, uncaring husbands tend to blur together in a mess of uniformly dysfunctional marriages.

Instead of the usual shocks and thrills, the various reveals in Someone We Know grow to feel like you've been trapped on a roundabout, where each exit is another identical suspect, another negligent husband seduced by the young, sexy, child-free Amanda.

Over and over, we hear about how flirtatious and promiscuous Amanda was - apart from her job as a temp, her extramarital adventures are all we learn about the victim, who is cast as a dangerous siren, the temptress that all of the other women on the street fear.

The story has shades of Desperate Housewives, only it's told without any empathy whatsoever for its victim. Those painfully naive housewives, meanwhile, remain stagnant, never rising above a thin sketch, while the police detectives are utterly blank slates, absent any personality and divided along predictable gender lines into a good cop, bad cop routine.

The series of unfaithful men grows repetitive, not helped by Lapena's preference for saying in three or four sentences what she could say in one.

"We all wear masks. We all have something to hide at one point or another. He wants to know what Robert Pierce might be hiding," it drones on, and on, and on.

It would help if the narrative moved at a faster clip, but that once-urgent present tense is ultimately hobbled in the middle section by the slow, monotonous pace.

When Lapena reaches her conclusion, the story picks up again, galloping to the end, only to meet with a slew of eye roll-inducing turns. By the last lines, there are so many questions left unanswered, so many threads left hanging, that you won't merely be wanting more, you'll be crying out in frustration.

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