“Watching You” by Lisa Jewell. Atria Books, 2019. 336 pages.
Lisa Jewell’s newest thriller, “Watching You,” opens in a kitchen, one of 27 such kitchens in an elite Victorian enclave in Bristol, England. DC Rose Pelham is bent over a body pierced by more than 20 knife wounds. From the pool of blood she extracts a small red tassel. “It’s probably nothing, she muses.” But she knows better. “Nothing was often everything in forensics.”
And so we begin, dutifully noting every clue as if it were the key that unlocks the vicious killer’s identity. Readers must pay attention. There’s no such thing as “nothing” in a Lisa Jewell thriller.
Jewell is a master of the genre. We are in good hands, which means we can happily gear up for a twisty ride we can trust to deliver us to a satisfying, unpredictable end. There’s nary a false note in “Watching You,” where almost everyone in this smart novel watches everyone else. The many red herrings eddy, roiling the waters and confounding the mystery of who done it and to whom. Jewell doesn’t reveal the victim’s identity and the killer till the last pages of the book.
Meanwhile, we eye the suspects circling in their uniquely neurotic ways. It’s like a Venn Diagram of malicious intents. A headmaster preys on virginal teenage girls, the dangerously paranoid lurk, mothers disengage from their responsibilities leaving their children to founder, unhappily married spouses seek relief outside the marriage, husbands and wives fail to stop at name-calling and long-held grudges power up over time.
One of the likable narrators is Joey, a beautiful young woman actively seeking adulthood. To that end she marries a handsome, well-meaning young man also seeking more from his life. Joey and Alfie move into Melville Heights, the Victorian enclave, to live with Joey’s brother Jack and his pregnant wife Rebecca. Jack is a heart surgeon and Rebecca is a systems analyst who works from home. She has a bird’s-eye-view of the quirky neighborhood from her office.
Among their neighbors are the Fitzwilliam family - Tom, the handsome headmaster, his depressed wife Nicola and their bright teenage son Freddie. Freddie speaks seven languages using 20 accents. He is socially challenged and spends a lot of time looking out the window with his digital binoculars. He documents what he sees in “The Melville Papers” and his digital photography.
Freddie’s father is the focal point in “Watching You.” The mother of a teenage girl who committed suicide confronts him in front of Freddie and his mother Nicola. The family can’t hear what’s being said but that confrontation is key. Tom Fitzwilliam is a relentless letch made dangerous by his good looks, charm and success at turning around troubled schools. He was 35 when he married 19-year-old Nicola, a former student of a school he oversaw. Nicola bends over backwards to appease her ingrate husband whose indiscretions are many.
Young Freddie is hardly the only watcher in this novel. Frances Ann Tripp is a disturbed mom who spies on her neighbors, collecting evidence of sinister plots. Like Freddie, she photographs what she sees. Her daughter, Jenna, is best friends with Bess. These two high school girls have a close, at times fraught, relationship that becomes one of the most affecting stories in the thriller. We aren’t just reading for whodunit. We want to know what becomes of the people we grow to care about in “Watching You,” especially Bess and Jenna, Freddie, and Joey and her brother Jack.
The novel starts with the dead body in a pool of blood, but backs up a month. Jewell tracks all the key suspects’ movements and motivations leading up to the murder. Everyone in her story is suspicious. “Watching You” is a tidy but reality-based thriller having something in common with the cozy mystery. Jewell delivers a small pool of plausible and fascinating suspects confined geographically. When the roiling subsides and the killer surfaces, we are surprised and pleased. Well-written, intelligent thrillers without a disingenuous word are rare. Many thrillers are best-sellers, but few satisfy like a Jewell thriller.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at email@example.com.