‘Domestic suspense’ – It’s a rather loaded term for a subgenre, isn’t it? It seems, intended or otherwise, to be a marketing phrase coined to target a very specific set of readers: ie suburban moms who love mysteries and thrillers. Don’t get me wrong, like the ‘soccer mom’ vote, this is a massively important demographic. Educated, engaged readers who tend to form book clubs and spread the word when they love a title. For publishers, this can look like a pleasant, tree-lined drive to the best-seller list.
I open with this observation because this particular reviewer is a New York City dwelling male reader who, while not the target demo for her books, greatly appreciates the storytelling talents of Shari Lapena. She’s a master of that essential art: she makes you turn the page. That’s what it really comes down to, isn’t it? By whatever means at your disposal, you must force a simple act out of a reader: Place finger on paper (or screen) and turn (or swipe) to the next one. What happens next? Beneath every sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter, your reader must be longing to know what’s to come. With her fourth psychological thriller (aka ‘domestic suspense’) Someone We Know (Pamela Dorman Books), Shari Lapena will once again have you turning pages at a furious rate.
Someone We Know returns to the region featured in her last novel, An Unwanted Guest. The Catskills and Hudson River Valley of upstate New York. It’s an area I know well, making me both an easy mark and an over-critical reader when a story is set in lands of deep familiarity.
According to her bio, Lapena is Canadian and lives in Toronto. I’m not sure how much time she’s spent in this area about a hundred miles north of New York City, but it’s enough. Her fictional town of Aylesford – “a place of many charms” – is an amalgam of a number of pleasant towns along the east side of the Hudson, two hours on Amtrak from Manhattan. (Unfortunately, unlike Aylesford, there are no specific towns hard along the river with “two majestic bridges that draw the eye.”) Across the water stand the rugged and wooded Catskill mountains, where dead bodies have been known to rest at the bottom of alpine lakes. It’s a fine pairing of landscape for a mystery. On one side, the manicured safety of country-suburbs; on the other, untamed nature, with plenty of hiding places, and, one hopes, a few alibis too.
The premise is a familiar one: a stranger comes to town. The peaceful, idyllic lives of neighbors are destabilized, then destroyed. In this case, it’s a couple new to Aylesford. They’re too attractive, too young, and childless – ie a threat to all the parents around them, each facing the various phases of fading beauty. The wife, Amanda Pierce, appears to be quite the flirty femme fatale. She wastes no time drawing the slobbering attention of the local dads. The husband, Robert Pierce, has seductive powers of his own. When Amanda’s car is discovered at the bottom of a Catskills lake, with her bludgeoned body in the trunk, signs point to the husband first, per usual, but the suspect list soon widens to include a number of dubious dads in the neighborhood.
Giving this classic mystery set-up another layer of intrigue is a smart and sneaky sixteen-year-old, Raleigh Sharpe, who has made a habit of breaking into neighborhood homes to practice his hacking skills on others’ computers. When he’s caught by his mom, he pulls the teenage version of the plea bargain: He admits to breaking into ‘just two houses’ and leaves out the many others. It’s the kid’s bad luck that one of those places is the Pierce house. Now the wife is dead, the husband is a suspect, along with his own father, and Raleigh’s prints are all over the murdered woman’s house.
Call this ‘domestic suspense’ if you like. I’ll call it a paranoid psychological thriller in the finest tradition.
Someone We Know is available today.
About Sheri Lapena:
SHARI LAPENA is the internationally bestselling author of The Couple Next Door, A Stranger in the House, and An Unwanted Guest. She was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning her hand to fiction.
She lives in Toronto.
Photo by Tristan Ostler.