Hazel McHaffie

domestic thrillers

The Couple Next Door

Did you know it’s World Book Day today – Thursday 5 March? Yep; a celebration of writing and reading. Hurrah!!

So which of the hundreds of books I have on my shelves shall I share with you on this auspicious day? Ahah. Time methinks to confess.

I am officially at odds with the establishment. That was confirmed when I read a highly acclaimed novel which I sent for on the grounds that a) it’s billed as a gripping thriller and b) it sounds very like my own latest novel, Killing me Gently. Indeed, the similarities were too striking to miss:
the genre: domestic thriller
a baby missing
a marriage in trouble
the mum struggling to cope
readers finding it unputdownable.

All comments applied to Shari Lapena‘s book, The Couple Next Door, which predates my (apparently) similar tale by three years, but which I’ve only just discovered. I had to check it out, then! A couple of train journeys this week gave me the perfect opportunity to savour it without too many distractions.

The basic storyline goes roughly like this. Anne Conti is struggling to cope with her new baby, Cora. She’s not going out to work so the confines of home and constant exposure to Cora’s fussing, grind her down. Her parents are fabulously wealthy. They disapproved of her marriage to impecunious Marco, but to allow their daughter to live in style, they initially gave him money to buy a beautiful house and start up his own business. Father and son-in-law frankly hate each other. Marco has recently suggested to Anne mortgaging their home to allow him to expand the enterprise.

Living next door is seductive Cynthia Stillwell and mousey husband Graham. They invite the Conti’s for a dinner party to celebrate Graham’s milestone birthday, but at the last minute the babysitter cancels. Cynthia is adamant: no babies at her parties. Anne says, OK, she won’t go then. But against her better judgement, Marco persuades her to leave Cora asleep in her own cot, taking a monitor with them so they can hear if she wakes, and taking it in turns to pop across every half an hour to check on her physically. Shortly after 1 o’clock they return together … to find the front door ajar, the security light unscrewed … and the baby missing.

Shades of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann way back in 2007 evoked, huh? Layers of guilt and reproach and suspicion.

As the facts of their lives unravel, it’s clear that Baby Cora, barely six months old, blonde hair, blue eyes, weighing about 16 pounds, is alone in being entirely above suspicion. Everyone else is harbouring murky secrets and hidden lives: Mum, Dad, Granny, Grandpa, the couple next door! Who can you trust? Nobody is telling the full truth here. Detective Rasbach has his work cut out. Fortunately he’s nobody’s fool.

There are plenty of glowing testimonials for The Couple Next Door from well respected writers and publications. It was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick. It bears the sticker: The most talked-about thriller of the year. It has attracted over 6500 comments on Amazon. Wow! Success by anyone’s measure. However, in the safety of my personal blog, I have to confess to personal reservations … seriously big ones at that.

Fair enough, the slow release of information casting doubt on the honesty of everyone, is  a page-turning tactic. The intriguing technique of the unreliable narrator keeps the adrenaline flowing. The principal characters are not very likeable or sympathetic or three dimensional, but at least we’re rooting for that little baby … and the detective. However, for me the style of writing really did not appeal. It reminds me of the audio description that provides information in a television programme for the benefit of visually impaired people – wooden, staccato, clunky. Points of view shift and we’re told bluntly what characters are thinking. All markers for ‘telling’ instead of more subtle and intriguing ‘showing’. I’m frankly astonished it has achieved such status.

So, though I can envy the author her success, I don’t wish I’d written her book. And I’m relieved that Killing me Gently could certainly not be suspected of being a re-hash of The Couple Next Door. Phew!

But let’s hear it for good books everywhere on this special day.  Long may they bewitch and inform and console and nourish us.



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Domestic psychological thrillers

Although I’ve read a large number of thrillers in an effort to understand the secrets and techniques that make for success, I’ve come across surprisingly few that fit more precisely into the family-based variety I’ve been trying to create myself; ‘domestic’, so-called ‘real-life’ fiction. So when I saw Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes in a supermarket second-hand charity corner at the weekend, I snapped it up. And I read it in two days.

I love the cover (her trademark style apparently), and the strap-line spoke to me: To create her family she will destroy yours. My kind of territory, huh?

And it got better and better the more I read about the book and its author. She’s dipped a toe in being a barmaid, a fruit picker, a private detective, a factory worker; she’s lived on a kibbutz, holidayed on Cornwall (my home county)… – a colourful life even before she took up crime writing. And in her novels she focuses on current issues, designed to challenge the reader to think, What if this happened to me or my family? Exactly what I try to do.

And indeed, Until You’re Mine bears some striking similarities to my own new novel, Killing me Gently, which becomes available for purchase this coming weekend*. Both are based around a young career woman, trying to adapt to being a mother; things clearly not being what they seem to be; threats hanging over families; marriages and relationships in peril.

In the case of Until You’re Mine, there are three principal women involved. Claudia Morgan-Brown has a history of numerous previous pregnancies all ending in miscarriages or still births – leaving her feeling ‘ an unworthy shell of a woman‘ and ‘a freak‘. Around perfect families with perfect babies ‘jealousy stuck in my craw like a bowlful of mud shoved down my throat.’ And yet her job – a job she loves – revolves around parents and children. As a social worker heading up a child protection team, she’s constantly dealing with dysfunctional, violent, abusive, disadvantaged families. Nor is she a stranger to the painful experience of removing children from their inadequate or unfit parents.

And it’s in the course of her work that she goes to check out the welfare of 2-month-old twin baby boys, Oscar and Noah Morgan, whose mother has just died of pancreatic cancer. They are being well cared for, but Claudia falls in love with their so-recently bereaved father, James, who reciprocates the emotion. ‘He was hurting. I was hurting. Together, we were mended.’ And now she’s heavily pregnant with James’ baby, but determined to keep working up till her due date and take the minimum of time off after the birth.

Husband, James, is a naval officer, a submariner, away for long stretches of time. And in reality Claudia knows very little of his past life. She does know, however, that he has inherited wealth from his first wife, enabling them to live in a huge and beautiful house, and that he has secrets about which she knows nothing. They decide to hire a live-in nanny to enable Claudia to keep doing what she’s good at.

Enter Zoe Harper, who comes with impeccable credentials, and is clearly really good with children. The twins adore her. We, however, know from the outset that Zoe isn’t what she appears to be. She lives in the ‘centre of an ever-changing lie’. We know she is preoccupied with pregnancy and babies. We know she’s recently left an intense relationship but still longs to make contact with her past. We also know she has her own agenda and is on a mission which somehow relates to counting down to the birth of Claudia’s child.

The third woman is Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher. She’s dealing with domestic crises at home – an errant husband and a rebellious teenage daughter determined to abandon her education and career prospects, leave home and marry her boyfriend. And on the work front Lorraine is dealing with two cases of pregnant women being sliced open and left for dead. Both the victims had troubled pasts and had been in the care of social services. Both had been wanting to terminate their pregnancies early on but for some reason had not gone through with it. Both babies and the first mother have died, but the second mother has survived, and somehow the survivor is the link between the social worker, nanny and detective.

Through the eyes of all three women we inch forward towards the critical date – the birth of Claudia’s baby girl. It’s tense, gripping stuff. But the three stories simply don’t hang together. Who is to be believed? Three women desperate to become mothers. Three women juggling competing demands. Three murders already. We’re counting down the days to deadlines with huge trepidation. The suspense keeps us glued to the pages. The killer twist in the tale, when it comes, is brilliantly executed. And the last sentence is perfection.

Phew! A serendipitous find but highly recommended. And I’ll certainly be hunting down more of Samantha Hayes’ books.

* Yep, at last! We’ve had a few glitches in the publishing process this time, hopefully now ironed out. More on this next week.




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A domestic thriller?

‘Fremlin’s métier was psychological suspense in a domestic setting; no Grand Guignol or melodrama, but something a thousand times creepier and more insidious in its small scale, suburban gentility.’  So says crime-writer Laura Wilson in the Foreword to a new edition of The Hours Before Dawn.  First published as long ago as 1958, this was the first and best known of Celia Fremlin‘s sixteen novels.

Celia Fremlin? do I hear? An English writer and Oxford graduate given to reinventing the truth in her own life as well as in her fiction. She won several prestigious awards for her novels (spanning 1958 -1994), and that in spite of a double tragedy when first her youngest child (Sylvia aged 19), and then her husband, committed suicide in the same year (1968). Indeed she was predeceased by all three of her children, dying herself in 2009, so a sad life, and yet her sense of humour leavens the darker side of her writing.

It was her second child (Geraldine) who became the inspiration for The Hours Before Dawn; she was one of those babies who, though perfectly content all day, wakes and screams inconsolably at night.

Had I not been writing my own story featuring an exhausted new mother, had I not been studying thriller writing, I doubt very much if I’d have taken much notice of this little volume. But it jumped out at me as an intriguingly different kind of thriller from the stack I’ve been studying over the past few months, and perhaps closer to what I’m searching for than many. A persistent and pervasive threat of harm chills the reader whilst the tale, set in the everyday mundane world of a ‘normal’ young family in a ‘normal’ house within a ‘normal’ community, unfolds.

The story is very much of its time (1950s, not long after the war) and resonated for me having grown up in that era. Children turfed outside to make their own fun, babies in carriage prams browning in the sun. Neighbours in overalls chatting over the garden fence, addressing each other as Mrs So-and-So. ‘Mrs’ the honorary title given to any unmarried mother in the days before abortion was legalised, the lingering stigma of illegitimacy. Linoleum on the floor, counterpanes on the bed. Impoverished folk taking in lodgers, women bowed down by the weight of household tasks with few mod cons, husbands expecting to be waited on. Sock garters, cloth nappies, hand-wrung washing pegged on clothes lines. Nevertheless new mothers through the ages would surely relate to the sheer exhaustion of sleepless nights blurring reality for Louse Henderson, unless, that is, they have nannies or staff to take the strain of a demanding baby.

‘I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep.’
For one awful moment Louise thought she’d spoken aloud. She jerked up her head and blinked round at the swinging streaks of colour that were rapidly resolving themselves into Mrs Hooper and her baby, Mrs Tomlinson and her baby, and that Mrs What’s-her-name in the smart blue suit whose baby did exactly what the books said, for all the world as if he and his mother studied the Behaviour Charts and Average Weight Tables together.

The gnawing relentless bone-weariness of sleep deprivation lies at the heart of this novel. A baby who cries for hours every night, two small girls with endless questions and squabbles, a dearth of the domestic appliances that make life so much easier for mothers today, irritable neighbours – all contribute to Louise’s permanent state of exhaustion. So the reader is left wondering how much of her experience is a figment of her overwhelming fatigue. Is she imagining the footsteps, the lodger sitting unmoving and inactive for hours in her room? Did she dream that the baby vanished or is he really in danger?  Can there really be something sinister going on in Louise’s own home? Fremlin manages to build the tension with exactly the right amount of menace at exactly the right points in the story, overlaying the whole with the constant blur between dream and nightmare, sanity and madness, reality and imagination, and lightening the darkness with her delightful wit and wisdom.

‘Bother! All the eggs would be hard by now, and Margery was the only one who liked them hard. Harriet liked hers soft, and Mark liked his very soft. As to Louise herself, she had long forgotten which way she liked them. It made the housekeeping that much easier if there was one person out of the five whose tastes didn’t have to be considered. To neglect one’s own tastes was more labour-saving than any vacuum cleaner, and it was a form of neglect about which no one would call you to account. Your husband wouldn’t demand buttons on it – your children wouldn’t hurt themselves on it, or be made late for school by it. It wouldn’t pile up against you, like the dirty nappies …’

And in spite of the growing fear and the nighttime screaming, Louise’s love and tenderness for her baby shine through.

‘… the dead weight of his head lay warm and with lovely trustfulness against her neck’.

One of the things creative writing tutors tell us is: Don’t use names beginning with the same letter for main characters. Here three members of the Henderson family all have names starting with M: Mark, Margery, Michael, but I rather suspect Fremlin chose them deliberately to symbolise the confusion and repetition and mind-blowing sameness Louse is contending with. She manages to capture the claustrophobia of four walls, the relentlessness of early motherhood, and the changing relationships within families and communities, with insight and understanding. And to ratchet up the tension with a few well-placed soft footfalls, shadows, doors closing, heavy footsteps, vague presences – as the reader is sucked into the gathering doubt and dread.

It’s short; easily read in a day; but a little gem of a book. Exactly the thing to help me launch into the next stage of my own writing.




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