Before She Knew Him

If you like character-driven psychological thrillers, Peter Swanson’s Before She Knew Him may be the book for you.

If you like mysteries but not thrillers, this might not be for you.

I’m not going to summarize the plot. In fact, it’s always been a mystery to me why so many book reviewers think that their job is to summarize the plot. Why do they think that? My hypothesis is that it comes from writing book reports in middle school, where that is apparently expected. But it’s not what reviewers should do — especially when reviewing a thriller or a mystery.

What’s the difference between the two genres? Here’s what I’ve always thought, in oversimplified form:

  • A mystery is basically a whodunit: you know the crime (early in the book) but don’t know who committed it (until late in the book).
  • A thriller is basically a whydunit: you know the criminal (early in the book) but you don’t understand their motivation (until late in the book).

I could, of course, be wrong.

Anyway, novels in either genre can have an unexpected ending, and of course that’s especially standard for mysteries. I’m always suspicious of the many reader-reviewers of mysteries who claim that they knew in advance who the murderer was, as it’s so easy in hindsight to say “Oh yes, I knew it all along.” Usually they are fooling themselves. If they want to keep themselves honest, they have to have a time-stamped document that reveals the identity of the murder before they learned it from the author.

Anyway, I’m getting off topic. I first picked up this book because of the apparently local angle. It takes place in “West Dartford,” a fictional suburb west of Boston, and there are even a couple of references to Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, so I’m thinking that we might be talking about Lincoln or Sudbury. Concord and Acton are mentioned, not as the locale but as nearby towns, reinforcing my belief that it’s supposed to be Lincoln or Sudbury. Sudbury seems more likely, because of the prominent role that neighbors take in the story. There’s also a fancy private school “a couple of towns away” in the story, but I have no clues about its presumed “real” identity, as there are far too many possibilities. The school, its students, and its teachers are all realistically portrayed.

No spoilers here, so I’m not going to give away any hint about the particulars of the psychological conditions that drive the characters; let’s just say that they are thematically crucial to the story, and that they are reasonably convincing, but not 100% so. I would be interested to hear what a psychiatrist or psychologist thinks. In any case, it all held my attention, and there is indeed a major surprise at the end.


Categories: Books