“Before She Knew Him” by Peter Swanson poses the question “How well could you really know another person?” Henrietta, a full-time artist and illustrator of children’s books, is pleasant and likeable. Her life is good; she had a troubled past but had come through foul weather and torrential rain to stand there in the sun. Her current cocktail of meds keeps her bipolar disorder from rearing its ugly head, and now she has her own studio walking distance from home. Her husband Lloyd takes the commuter rail into Boston for his job in public relations.
At a neighborhood block party, “Hen” and Lloyd meet Matthew and Mira Dolamore who live immediately next door. The couples became casual friends, and everyone seemed to be happy. Much later Hen would realize how wrong that first impression was. Matthew and Mira invite Hen and Lloyd over for dinner. The dinner conversation is normal, usual, perhaps boring, talk about jobs, the neighborhood, and other causal topics. Things change when Hen notices a trophy on the mantel, a fencing trophy. Later she shares her fears with Lloyd. “I’m not being paranoid or obsessive, and I don’t feel manic, but I know. Our neighbor killed Dustin Miller.”
The story progresses with the point of view shifting between Hen and Matthew, and sometimes Mira Readers get to know each of them well and follow their thoughts, and observe the possible, the improbable, and the unthinkable, all from each point of view. However, are the views of these characters accurate or are people seeing murderers where there are none? Things turn, significantly, strangely, desperately, and readers are not even halfway through, when a different voice, a first person narrative, starts with even more twists, turns. and treachery.
Characters want to pretend that nothing is wrong, but something is very, very wrong. Everyone has secrets; everyone is wrong about some things, and everyone is right about something else. Mira laments that “She had done what she wanted, and look what had happened. She had a psychotic neighbor now, out to get her husband.” Others share significant thoughts as well. “People are defined by their actions. What they do is who they are. ““Your husband made you do it.” And the most revealing comment of all, “I like to kill people.”
“Before She Knew Him” is full of secrets — personal secrets, private secrets, and shared secrets; those might be the most dangerous ones. I received a review copy of “Before She Knew Him” from Peter Swanson, and publishers William Morrow and Harper Collins. Swanson created tension on every page, and readers feel they are in on a secret, a frightening, and perilous secret. Just when readers think that nothing can be as strange as what has already happened, something even stranger happens, even on the last page.