Written by Alex Marwood — Big cities are anonymous places and it’s all too easy to pass unobserved, even among neighbours. This is the theme explored by Alex Marwood in her eagerly anticipated second novel, a standalone thriller which promises to be every bit as gripping as her much-praised debut The Wicked Girls.
No 23 Northbourne is a run down property in South London, which has been divided up into bedsits. The conditions are so appalling that it’s only people who are either penniless or on the run who are willing to live there. Each of the six residents has something to hide. Collette (real name Lisa) witnessed a terrible crime committed by her ex-boss and has been trying to avoid him ever since. Cher is a teenager, deemed to be thick by her social workers, but who is living by her quick wits after escaping from a series of unsuitable foster placements. Hossein is a political dissident and asylum seeker haunted by the past. Thomas is a council worker who wants to make friends, but fails to make much of an impression on his neighbours. There is also the invisible man, never seen by the other residents, but whose loud music is a nuisance. Finally, there is Vesta, the elderly sitting tenant, who won’t allow herself to be intimidated by the sleazy and money-grabbing landlord, so visibly eager to get rid of her.
As the city suffocates in an uncharacteristic heatwave, the house seems to come alive with fearsome sounds and the disgusting stench of blocked drains. Then, one night, a terrible accident happens and the mismatched residents are forced to conspire to cover an unsavoury deed. Little do they suspect that one of them is a serial killer with much more serious crimes to hide. The sense of menace and suspense is always there, even when we have a good inkling of who the murderer is.
The structure of the book is very clever. We start off with the end, set in the present. The police are interviewing young tearaway Cher to find out what happened at the property, and just how many victims the killer had managed to hide on-site. We are given a clue regarding the identity of the final victim, but not that of the killer. Then the author switches back to the time of the killings. She draws us closer to the female characters, particularly Lisa/Collette, who seems predestined to be a victim – if not of her former gangster boss, then of the serial killer lurking in the neighbourhood. So there is a very powerful sense of impeding doom throughout the book, although there are plenty of twists to keep us guessing till the very end.
The Killer Next Door is not just a good old-fashioned page-turner, filled with memorable characters, but also a compassionate look at the downtrodden people in society. The author reveals the individual hopes, dreams and depths of souls who are often filed away as a statistic and then forgotten. For them, the promise of paradise is nothing more than an anonymous new life in Ilfracombe, Devon. Is there any chance this dream will come true for at least one or two of the characters?
Some descriptions may be too graphic for readers of a squeamish disposition, and you may never feel the same again about pouring your cooking fat down the toilet. However, if you can bear to peek through your fingers, you will find this a riveting read.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars