Reviewed by Ruth Latta
The Killer Next Door
by Alex Marwood
2014, ISBN 978-0-14-312669-0
According to Jane Smiley in Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, all novels contain an improbable element. In Alex Marwood’s latest, The Killer Next Door, it’s the supposition that someone could kill, eviscerate and mummify his victims in a rooming house inhabited by five other tenants and frequented by an intrusive landlord who has spy cameras rigged up in some of the rooms. Those readers who are willing to spend disbelief on this one questionable element, however, are in for an intense experience with Marwood’s psychological horror-suspense novel. Admirers of good writing will appreciate the cleverness of the plot and enjoy the comic elements.
The resident cat, for instance, lends a lighter note. Roaming freely, Psycho sits on a window ledge of the old house at 23 Beulah Road in a London suburb, and observes grisly deeds being committed. An action on his part leads to revelation of the crimes.
Witty foreshadowing also provides amusement. When sixty-nine year old Vesta, tenant of the basement apartment, returns from her holiday in Ilfracombe, another tenant, Hossein, an Iranian refugee, carries her luggage from the bus stop to 23 Beulah Road and complains about how heavy it is.
“I didn’t have time to remove the bodies,” she jokes. Later, when she and Cher, the teenage tenant, are having tea and discussing their fellow residents, Vesta thinks, “We must all seem ancient to her. Almost mummified.”
Humorous social comment appears, too. When Collette (formerly Lisa), a fugitive from a criminal night club owner in Spain, moves into the house, she hears another tenants humming a George Formby song, and thinks: “I know I’m really in England.” Alas, she may think her new home is normal and ordinary, but events prove her wrong.
Later, when Hossein is blasting out the clogged drains of the house (blocked by a surprising amount of fat), he is surprised not to receive complaints from the “posh” neighbours next door who are having an outdoor party. “But the English, he finds, are an odd race, prepared to put up with just about anything rather than engage with a stranger.” The accuracy of Hossein’s generalization is supported by the fact that the killer gets away with grisly murders in a house full of people who mostly mind their own business.
The author gives readers fair warning of the horrific content. In the Prologue, a police investigator tells young Cher that “some of the body parts didn’t match up with the known victims” and that two of the fingers in the freezing compartment matched the prints of Lisa Dunne, reported missing three years earlier. Chapter One is a flashback to three years earlier when assistant manager Lisa, closing up the club in the early morning, accidentally enters a room where thugs are kicking a man to death as her boss, Tony, looks on. In Chapter Two, presented from the cat’s perspective, a man at 23 Beulah Grove, identified as “the Lover”, weeps in his room over a motionless woman with a plastic bag taped over her head.
The novel is presented in the third person from the points of view of the characters, including the killer, who is not identified at first. Is he Roy Preece, the lazy obese landlord, who spies on some of his tenants over a closed circuit TV system? Or is it Gerald Brooks, the pale, middle-aged music teacher who keeps to himself and plays classical music very loud? Thomas Dunbar, the mild, unremarkable fortyish man who works at Citizens Advice and volunteers for a furniture repair charity seems an unlikely suspect, as does Hossein Zanjany. Handsome Hossein, once an economist and writer in Iran, is waiting for permanent resident status in the U.K. and, until he is given it, must report regularly to a government authority.
Experienced mystery readers will figure out the identity of the “Lover”/killer in the first quarter of the novel, so, for them, the suspense will lie in wondering how, or whether, he will be brought to justice. The three women characters and Hossein are multi-faceted, “round” characters whose presence in the novel compensates for the gross scenes showing the serial killer’s methods and procedures. These sympathetic characters will appeal to readers, who will keep turning pages find out what becomes of them.
Vesta, whose main financial asset is her life-tenancy in her basement apartment at 23 Beulah Road, is an appealing character who grew up in gentler times in a poor but solid family. Strong and insightful, she is friendly toward Hossein, Cher, and eventually, Collette. When Vesta inadvertently commits a serious crime – a clever surprise that Marwood springs on us – these tenants, along with Thomas, abet her in hiding what she has done. Collette (Lisa) wins our sympathy because of her fear of Tony and his henchmen, and because she has returned to London to see her elderly mother, who is in hospital with cardiac-related dementia. Her concern for her mother is commendable, given her mother’s negligence in bringing her up. Cher, the pretty teenager who lives by “scrumping” rather than working, stirs our emotions because she lost her family tragically and suffered in the foster care system.
Marwood makes clever use of cliffhanger endings and shifts from one point of view character to another to build suspense. The Epilogue begins grimly, showing Cher back in the social welfare system, but surprises us with a gratifying conclusion. Readers who enjoyed Marwood’s earlier mystery/suspense novel, The Wicked Girls, will like this one for its many surprises.