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Onyx reviews: The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 09/06/2014
Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith writes two series about the
misadventures of the residents of apartment buildings, one in Edinburgh, the
other in London. For the most part, his characters are well-behaved and their
adventures benign. The buildings themselves are clean and well tended. There are
secrets, but none like those held by the half-dozen individuals who live at 23
Beulah Grove in the gentrifying London suburb of Northbourne.
Roy Preece, the landlord and property owner, a corpulent, lazy man with his own dark
secrets and tendencies, would have sold off long ago if not for his oldest
tenant, Vesta Collins, who once lived here with her parents when the building
was more respectable, if not more prosperous. As a sitting tenant, she has the
right to remain in her apartment for life. Preece is constantly looking
for ways to dislodge her, but has thus far failed. The irony is that Vesta is
looking for an excuse to leave, and if he'd made a decent offer (well below
market value), she might have accepted. Her basement apartment is something of a
jail of her own making as she gets on in years.
The other tenants are a hodge podge of outcasts and outsiders who live at
Beulah Grove mostly because they have nowhere else to go. Nowhere that doesn't
demand references and background checks, that is. Beulah Grove is a cash-only
enterprise, and that suits the residents just fine. There's a handsome
Iranian asylum seeker who is waiting for his case to come before the Home Office.
There's a former music teacher with Asperger's who rarely emerges from his apartment. Loud
classical music emanates from within day after day. There's the man in the
upstairs room whose workload has just been reduced, leaving him with too much
idle time on his hands. There's Cher, the young, saucy girl who scares up her rent by
pick-pocketing and conning people out of their belongings, and the feral cat
currently named Psycho who has adopted her. And, finally, there's
Collette, who is on the run.
Three years ago, Collette was working at a shady nightclub bar, hoping
against hope that the place wouldn't be raided by the cops. One night she
stumbles across the club owner and his thugs beating a man senseless. She grabs
the duffel bag containing cash that is being laundered through the establishment
and disappears. Nearly £185,000 is enough to keep her solvent for a while,
so long as she's frugal. However, she knows the owner won't let her get away
with stealing from him, so she moves around Europe. Before too long, though, her
enemies track her down and she has to decamp yet again. Now she's back in
London, mostly because her mother is dying, living under an assumed name. Some of her ill-gotten gains have
gone toward the care home for her mother. The police want her to testify against
the mobsters, but she knows there's nowhere on earth safe for her if she does.
The room she gets at Beulah Grove was recently occupied by another girl named
Nikki, who left without saying a word to anyone. She also abandoned all of her
belongings. Thanks to the prolog, readers know the reason for Nikki's
disappearance, and there is also a strong hint that Collette will meet with a
similar fate. Someone is killing young girls and attempting to preserve their
corpses. This man's efforts at mummification have not been entirely successful,
leaving behind fetid messes and stenches that are amplified by a heat wave.
Marwood describes some of his experiments in gruesome, visceral detail.
Without the prolog, The Killer Next Door would be a different kind of
book. By leaping forward to the end, Marwood lays out up front some of the
things that might otherwise have been discovered along the way. While that might
rob the novel of some of its suspense, that doesn't seem to be what Marwood is
trying to do with this book. It is an incisive and insightful character study of
a group of mostly untrusting, lonely people with nothing in common who slowly
form a community that pulls together when terrible things start to happen.
Based on the prolog, readers might think they know where
Marwood is headed, but that doesn't stop her from upping
the ante and putting the screws to her characters. This isn't a book for the faint of heart. In addition to the killer's morbid
experiments, there are also unflinching descriptions of violent acts. Young Cher,
on the run from Social Services, doesn't always get away scot-free when she robs
people, and one of her targets pays her back brutally. Later, she suffers
horrible injuries when she stumbles upon something she was never meant to see.
Marwood makes readers feel every one of these wounds, and experience all of the
stomach-churning senses that surround events on this otherwise quiet street.
When depraved serial killers are unmasked, people always wonder how those who
lived near him didn't suspect anything. What about the smells and the strange
goings-on? Marwood answers this question—people are often too busy dealing
with their own messes to pay attention to those created by others.
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