When Henrietta Mazur and her husband Lloyd move into a new neighborhood outside of Boston, they’re expecting to deal with the typical troubles of new home ownership: renovating, decorating and navigating awkward interactions with neighbours. What they aren’t expecting is to become wrapped up in the crimes of a serial killer who lives next door.
Peter Swanson is well-versed in the world of crime and thriller fiction. His 2015 novel The Kind Worth Killing was nominated for – and won – numerous awards, and attracted the attention of filmmakers and producers alike. That novel, like his latest, explored the ripple effect of a chance encounter between two people and delved deep into the psyches of individuals who commit violent acts. Swanson seems perpetually interested by the thought processes of dangerous people, and it shows in his intricate and character-driven novels. Before She Knew Him is a standout story in a saturated genre. It’s well-written, fast-paced, and offers a unique enough plot so as not to feel repetitive in a time when so many people are trying to cash in on the thriller craze. But for all its positive attributes, the story suffers because of an over-used and problematic plot device: using mental illness to turn someone into an unreliable witness.
Henrietta Mazur, a talented and successful artist, is a compelling central character. She’s smart, empathetic, and witty, and, relatably enough, she feels compelled to involve herself in situations that really aren’t any of her business. It is Henrietta who fuels the narrative of the story, developing a bizarre cat-and-mouse relationship with her murderous neighbour and desperately trying to call attention to his actions. Her attempts to bring a serial killer to justice are hampered only by her history of mental illness, which, for some frustrating reason, makes her an unreliable judge of character in the eyes of everyone around her, including her husband.
In college, a young Henrietta suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a condition for which she has been consistently medicated ever since. During a medication switch years later she entered a manic period and began fixating on a violent crime that took place on her street - one that may or may not have been committed by her new neighbour. Throughout the course of the novel, Henrietta is on top of her medication and shows none of the signs of a manic episode. Despite this, her friends and family constantly behave as though her condition makes her untrustworthy, untruthful, and unreliable, when in reality it is the thing that made her knowledgeable enough about a murder case to catch the perpetrator.
Swanson isn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last, to use mental illness as a plot device in this way. In 2018’s breakout thriller The Woman In The Window (problematic for many reasons more eloquently explained here), author AJ Finn’s main character was scrutinized for her agoraphobia. Because of her illness, police refused to acknowledge that she may have information pertinent to their investigation. Before She Knew Him is a good, entertaining read. It doesn’t fail because of it’s problematic plot devices. It’s still a solid worthwhile read and an incredibly well written book. Fans of the thriller genre will enjoy this new take on murder mystery, and will undoubtedly find many of the same themes in its as they did in The Kind Worth Killing.