I had better say right at the start that I really didn’t like this book very much.
Yes, it’s a page turner. Yes, I wanted to know what happened. Yes, it will be a big seller. Yes, thousands of people are going to gush about it and think it is their best book of the summer.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like it – and I didn’t.
Transworld – the publisher that bought the rights to the book – are the powerhouse behind a string of domestic thriller bestsellers, including Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train (2015) and Fiona Barton’s The Widow (2016), both of which I have read and reviewed in these pages.
Like those books, The Couple Next Door was the subject of a bidding war and has been sold, so far, into 24 territories.
In Transworld’s own words, they regard this book as, “A major debut thriller … supported by a huge marketing and publicity campaign”.
Sometimes it is worth reminding ourselves at a very basic level of how the publishing business works at the mass marketing end. The rights to publish a promising work are auctioned to the highest bidder. The sums involved can be huge and are always substantial. Think at least six figures. Once the bid has been secured, the book cannot be allowed to fail. Hence the “huge marketing and publicity campaign”.
This is not about quality; this is about getting a return on an upfront investment. Sometimes the book justifies the hype, sometimes it doesn’t. But by the time you have bought and read it, it doesn’t really matter.
Transworld, or whoever has the publishing rights where you live, has made the sales it needs to turn a profit.
With echoes, surely, of the Madeleine McCann case (the three-year-old British child who went missing while on holiday in 2007 and has yet to be found), Marco and Anne go to dinner with their next door neighbours, Cynthia and Graham.
They had planned to hire a babysitter but at the last minute she had cancelled. Cynthia does not like babies, so Marco and Anne decide to leave their baby sleeping at home and take with them their baby monitor. They also agree that they will take turns to check on her every half hour.
But when they get back home after the dinner party, the front door is ajar.
And when they get upstairs, the baby is no longer in her crib.
Someone has stolen her.
I can see that this is a promising starting point for a domestic thriller. But my immediate objection, even by the end of Chapter One, was that I felt shamelessly manipulated.
This poor couple has had their baby stolen – how could you not sympathise with that, you might ask?
Well, because leaving your baby asleep alone and getting drunk at a dinner party next door is not exactly a responsible thing to do.
And by the end of Chapter One I can already see that this foursome is a fairly unappealing bunch of people.
But more to the point, I know that Shari Lapena as an author is trying to exploit my natural sympathies for what is actually an appalling situation.
This is fiction, remember – and Lapena is going for the softest spot she can think of.
Predictably, she widens her cast slightly, but only slightly, to include Anne’s parents and the investigating officer. Here, I’m afraid, cliché follows cliché – or perhaps more accurately, stereotype follows stereotype.
Anne, we learn, is an unstable woman with a background of blackouts and mental health issues. She spends much of the book in tears, wringing her hands and wallowing in self-accusation. Marco has a business which is failing – a fact he keeps from his wife.
Anne’s father, Richard, is a multi-millionaire on the back of his wife’s money and has no time at all for Marco. Despite that, he has financially supported the business while at the same time making it clear that he thinks Anne should never have married her useless husband.
Anne’s mother may be rich but she is subjugated to her husband.
Cynthia, the beautiful next door neighbour, is sexually voracious and unpleasant. Her partner is a shadow and very quickly fades out of the book entirely.
And the detective? Well, he has intelligent eyes but seems to have nothing else to do other than be entirely at the beck and call of whichever one of this unlikely bunch decides he or she has something to confide.
Procedurally convincing this is not.
In short, then, this is a cast of stereotypical and, by and large, deeply unsympathetic characters.
To be utterly cynical, one of the reasons this book is going to be a very popular read is that it is written in language that is comfortably within the compass of a 10-year-old.
The vocabulary is simple and the sentences are short. This, I promise, is a random quotation: “As he gets closer, he gets a better look at the other car. It’s a police car, an unmarked police car. Not a white and black patrol car, but an unmarked police car. You can always tell them by the grill on the front. Marco feels sick. Why is there a police car here now? Was he followed …,” and on and on.
So no, I didn’t like The Couple Next Door but I am sure it will sell very well.
It is, I concede, a fast paced page-turner and I confess that I did want to know how it ended.
But I was also rather relieved when it did.
The Couple Next Door
Author: Shari Lapena
Publisher: Bantam Press, fiction