Annie Ward’s debut has all the familiar ingredients of the recent outpouring of psychological thrillers—dynamic but unreliable female narrators, a story that bounces between different characters’ perspectives, and secrets that remain buried throughout years of friendship or marriage—but it’s set apart by its unusual settings.
Maddie and Jo met as high school students on a summer exchange program in Spain. After college graduation, Maddie is in Bulgaria, teaching English at Sofia University, and Jo is an aid worker based in Skopje, Macedonia, a five-hour bus ride from Sofia. In 2001, the third pivotal character arrives in the midst of Jo and Maddie’s sojourn overseas: Ian Wilson, a security officer serving in the British army. Both women are fascinated by Ian, especially Maddie, who seems to be obsessed with him. Jo and Ian’s fling is brief, leaving Jo bitter and convinced that Ian is hiding evil underneath his humanitarian facade. Maddie continues to harbor feelings for him, even over years with little communication. Eventually, when Maddie returns to New York, she and Ian reconnect, which leads to their marriage in 2012. They move to her hometown of Meadowlark, Kansas—the only place where Ian feels he can cope with everyday life after the horrors he experienced in Bosnia and Rwanda—and start a family together.
Interspersed with these events are chapters from “The Day of the Killing,” though the reader doesn’t know the identities of the victim or killer. Maddie has suffered head injuries twice in her life, which may have affected her brain, and Ian suffers from PTSD. But which one is sick enough to commit a brutal murder?
A twist in the closing pages will catch even the most jaded reader off guard, making Beautiful Bad a good read for fans of Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins and A.J. Finn.