Thursday, November 02, 2023

Swanson’s Single-Sitting Stunner

(Editor’s note: This is the second Rap Sheet submission by Northern California resident Peter Handel, who has reviewed and written about crime fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, the Portland Oregonian, Pages Magazine, Mystery Readers International, and CrimeReads. He previously examined a trio of prominent recent spy novelists.)

Peter Swanson writes the kind of thrillers one almost dreads picking up. Fifteen pages in and the world seems to stop. He’s that good.

In The Christmas Guest (Morrow), a new novella, Swanson deftly slides the reader into a set of classic “English Christmas” tropes: huge country estate, rich meals, forced conviviality, and drinking … lots of drinking.

Our narrator, Ashley Smith, a chatty, somewhat obnoxious American college student studying in London, is a young woman left on her own after the death of her mother. When a charming (of course) fellow student, Emma Chapman, asks her to come home with her for Christmas, Ashley is thrilled.

But this is Peter Swanson, and we’re in the realm of unreliable narrators, a likely murderous cast and the underlying, unnerving knowledge that the rug, at some point, will be ripped out from under our already nervous feet … cuz we know it will be, just not when.

In a 2021 interview with the UK-based Crime Fiction Lover, Swanson was asked what convinced him to write crime fiction in the first place. “It was never a decision, exactly,” he sad. “I’ve loved crime fiction since I was very young, and when I decided to try my hand at a novel it was a very natural choice. All of my ideas have murders in them.”

As The Christmas Guest progresses, Ashley finds Emma’s family somewhat brittle, but no matter, because Emma’s hot brother, Adam, and the instant crush Ashley has on him more than make up for the chilly response to her overtures and American-style friendliness. There’s just one little problem: Adam is suspected of being behind the unsolved slaying of a local girl whose body was found in the woods near the Chapmans’ manor house. She had her head bashed in …

But that little bump in the road—or in the head—doesn’t quell Ashley’s lust for him. As the holiday lurches along, she begins to think that Adam has reciprocal feelings and becomes obsessed with wanting to spend more time with him.

To this point, Swanson’s entire story has been told in a series of diary entries by dedicated chronicler Ashley … until it’s not. Part two is that rug-pulling moment, and another character takes over the narrative.

It’s so Swanson, and so delicious. In fewer than 100 pages, he executes his plot. As he notes in his afterword, “I wanted to write a story that could be read in one sitting.” Does he ever!

In that aforementioned Crime Fiction Lover interview, Swanson was asked if he would ever write a series instead of only standalones. He replied, “I would have to fall in love with a protagonist, and I think that might happen at some point. But for right now I do enjoy creating new characters and new worlds for every book.”

I beg to differ. For this reader, all of Peter Swanson’s books essentially take place in the same universe. All of them include murder, duplicity and some very sleazy characters, sex-drenched sociopaths and frequently, kind of dumb lead protagonists. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

No comments: