Updated: Aug 22, 2019
The baby's been grouchy all day, and the woman next door doesn't like kids. Anne doesn't really want to go to the dinner party, but her husband insists. They could do with some time out of the house. And they'll have the baby monitor, as well as nipping next door every half hour to check on her. It'll be fine.
What if our baby is already dead? ... What if we never find her?
The Couple Next Door is one of those mystery who-dunnit thrillers that slowly transform me into Columbo. Instead of making notes on the quality of the writing, I was scribbling notes in my little police-officer-style (Oxford) notebook as if I'd been transported to the crime scene. Does the fact that mother Anne refers to her infant child as "the baby" a sign of disassociation? Was she unattached, or even resentful? And when her husband points out, "It will be good for you to get out ... You know what the doctor said," I was literally leaning forward in my seat, almost demanding the book to tell me what kind of doctor she's been seeing.
She thinks that he might have other secrets from her. After all, she has secrets from him.
Of course, in novels such as these we immediately scrabble for suspects. The book's title alone casts instant suspicion on Cynthia and Graham, "the couple next door," and any hint of them being less than savoury will be pounced on.
The husband's behaviour in the first couple of chapters is such an obvious red flag that you end up turning in circles over him. His wails of "I'm so sorry. It's my fault" could be the cries of a heartbroken father or a guilty murderer. Is he involved? He does press his wife to stay longer at the party, and she in turn suspects that he is not as drunk as he was acting. No, it's too obvious. But then again, Occam's Razor often triumphs in real life (if not necessarily in literature), so could he be a part of this? Or is author Shari Lapena double-bluffing (or are we up to triple now) and he's our first red herring? I don't mind admitting it: I was dancing on Lapena's strings.
He will stand by her no matter what ... no matter how bad things get.
It's a plot-driven narrative rather than resting on its characters. which works well here. I didn't care much for either parent -- no dislike, they just didn't particularly grab me -- but my favourite was Detective Rasbach. Lapena doesn't feel the need to give him the heavy backstory we are often lumbered with in similar novels. He's matter of fact, always there when needed, and doesn't take anything at face value. His cynicism about the outcome of the case doesn't feel jaded, but rather an expectation built upon years of experience.
His capacity for surprise seems to have evaporated. But he is always curious. He always wants to know.
He was perhaps the most present character for me: throughout I imagined him something like Adrian Lester (and the grandfather as Burt Reynolds), whereas the distraught parents are a little more vague. There is too much reiteration that Rasbach, suspicious of the parents, almost feels sorry them, which is repeated a couple of times and becomes wearisome. The grandfather himself is a little too much of a caricature of the overbearing father-in-law lording his money over the boy he doesn't believe is good enough for his daughter.
The truth is there. It's always there. It simply needs to be uncovered.
The Couple Next Door is a decent thriller that will keep you turning in search of the truth. It probably wouldn't stand up well to repeat reading, but it's an enjoyable way to spend a few hours.