The Killer Next Door begins with descriptions of the cloying London heat, a terrible odor from the drains, a cardigan that smells of tobacco frying, and the wheezing, truculent, blubbery figure of Roy Reece, the landlord of 23 Beulah Grove. For Lisa “”Collette” Dunne, on the lam from her ex-boss, carrying a sack load of cash, Reece is nothing more than a dirty old man getting a thrill, a “cash in hand landlord” who rents rooms out through cards in newsagents’ windows.
Desperate for a haven of solace and terrified that her boss’s henchmen will find her (“it’s only a matter of time,”) Collette takes the flat, even when all of the previous tenant’s possessions are still scattered throughout. While the thought of what might have happened to “Nikki” makes Collette cold and clammy, she finds herself caught in a conundrum. She begins to befriend her troubled neighbors—elderly, retired Vesta; young, unemployed Cher; and Hossein, a handsome Iranian political refugee—while also weighted down by the thought of having to visit her mother, Janine, now in a rest home and close to death.
As “the dirty old sod leers at her as he takes her money,” Colette finds herself entering into a closed suburbia of people living on the edge and lonely tenants who work with their hands while trying not to let any domestic discord leak out into the greater gossip pool of this gentrifying Northbourne suburb. Forced to share a bathroom with Gerard Bright, a recently divorced music teacher and perhaps “another grubby old lecher,” Collette is off the radar in every way, free to regroup and work out what she’s going to do next. Collette thinks she has found the solution to her problems and a break from the pinched circumstances of her real life.
While The Killer Next Door is too loosely plotted and lacks the tension of The Wicked Girls, Marwood does a excellent job of drawing the reader into a grisly landscape made all the more ghastly by the longest heat wave in living memory. In a city where greed and peer pressure can twist and stain the human soul with ugliness, dark secrets lurk behind thick doors at 23 Beulah Grove, a house with an ugly history that rots and festers, clogging up Vesta’s drains. It’s a perfect place to turn wet, putrefying dead bodies into leathery facsimiles that at least in passing resemble the original owner as they were in life.
Cher, the hollow-eyed, desperate hustler always looking for the main chance, steals to make the rent with perhaps a little cash left over. Reece trolls the secret attic under the stairs. Untroubled by other people's definitions of reality, he burns with a terrible and terrifying sexual desperation; there’s no line he will not cross if he feels it will get him where he wants to go. Vesta fights to hold on to the only home she’s ever known. Increasingly desperate, she dreams of a new life in the seaside town of Ilfracombe.
Using ample landscape—the infamous London summer, the constant stench of the drains, the expanses of the grassy Northbourne parks, the night buses passing, “full of drunks and exhausted, slumbering workers”—Marwood makes Vera, Cher Collette, and Hussein the linchpins in a deadly scenario, full-on targets for a nightmarish killer who seems more disturbed with each passing chapter. Infusing her story with one extreme scenario after another, Marwood jumps back and forth between dark humor and terrifying moments of violence that take place at the drop of a hat.
Unfolding in a kind of dreamland melodrama in reverse—a place with no real attractions for an outsider—Marwood’s characters play out their paths weighing their own futures as well as recriminatory debts that will need to be paid. Hoping for time to reflect, Collette is attracted to Hussein, but the friendship is complicated by their precarious circumstances. In the midst of all the gore, Marwood tells us how we see ourselves, what we value, and what we keep hidden from prying eyes.