You’d be forgiven for feeling a bit tired of the unreliable narrator, a character that is practically inescapable in the mystery and suspense genre. But even if you think you’re out, the slippery protagonists of these two thrillers will reel you right back in.
It’s natural to be wary of the main character in Rabbit Hole. Alice Armitage is currently enduring an extended stay in a psychiatric hospital and is very upfront about her PTSD, memory lapses and tendency toward misbehavior on the ward. But when a fellow patient is found dead, Alice’s training kicks into gear. Previously a police officer—or so she says—Alice launches an independent investigation of the crime, developing a theory of the case that’s both overly complicated and entirely plausible. When the suspect she’s laser-focused on is also killed, the tightening spiral of this story spins off its axis, taking Alice’s grasp of reality with it.
It’s an audacious move to open a story by essentially waving a red flag and pointing to the unreliability of the main character, but Alice is consistently intriguing, vacillating between lucid, analytical thinking and temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. Mark Billingham, author of the bestselling Tom Thorne mystery series, gives Alice a cocky confidence that Rabbit Hole peels away at every turn. One minute she’s wisecracking about her fellow patients and their diagnoses, certain they belong inside while she’s the voice of rationality. Then her father comes to visit, and the exchange is so crushingly awkward that her jokes fail to hide how serious her situation is.
Descriptions of the hospital and its residents are fairly bleak with lots of dark humor. Patients might be friends, but friendship can quickly turn antagonistic and even violent for any reason or none at all. What begins as the story of a maverick cop lands some distance from that premise, will leave you rethinking everything that was said and done along the way to the novel’s surprising and poignant ending.
After finishing Louise Candlish’s The Other Passenger, I patted myself down to be sure my wallet was still accounted for. This gorgeous, meticulous nail-biter is a smooth work of narrative criminality. Here are the basic facts: Jamie has just ridden the ferry to begin an average workday when two police officers stop him. His friend and fellow commuter Kit is missing, and Kit and Jamie were seen fighting the night before Kit’s disappearance. Jamie swears he knows nothing of Kit’s whereabouts, and from there things get very stressful very quickly.
Through a series of flashbacks, Jamie explains how he and his partner, Clare, and Kit and his wife, Melia, became close friends, a complex foursome full of hidden resentments and deep financial grievances. There’s extramarital sex and the potential for a payday that’s too big to resist. The heady feeling that comes with doing the wrong thing and getting away with it falls apart spectacularly when consequences come into play; the shame and regret feel like gut punches when they land.
Key to all this drama is Melia. Clare was the first to befriend her, only to later observe that a preference for being called “Me” might signal a hint of narcissism worth watching out for. False leads and feints recall The Usual Suspects and will keep the reader hyperalert, bordering on paranoid. Music figures into the story as a layer of commentary that also builds atmosphere: In a scene where Melia dances with a girlfriend, the lyrics of the Lana Del Rey song that’s playing add a sinister undertow.
Candlish never lets the tension slacken as deep discussions of income disparity, aging, love and loss keep readers’ loyalties shifting between characters. There’s the potential for at least one character, perhaps more, to appear in another novel. It would be thrilling to see them again. The villains in The Other Passenger are never held at arm’s length. We care, even as their ordinary lives turn monstrous.