Murder, generally, is no laughing matter, and Alex Marwood's "The Killer Next Door'' features a murderer with a very focused penchant for Egyptian embalming techniques. But in this, her second novel, Marwood — whose Edgar-winning 2013 debut, "The Wicked Girls,'' was a word-of-mouth hit — weaves in scenes of darker-than-night humor that took me back, in the most pleasant way, to 1994's "Shallow Grave,'' a very funny, very gruesome black comedy — and early Ewan McGregor film — involving several roommates, a corpse, and a cash-stuffed suitcase.
In Marwood's creepy crime novel, seemingly unconnected incidents proceed from ridiculously bad to horrifically worse. In a suburban London apartment house, a motley mix of individuals live cheek-by-jowl, most of them in thrall to variously gritty circumstances and, by default, to their super-icky landlord. The inhabitants include Collette, on the run from her ex-boss and his henchmen ever since she witnessed them kicking a man to death; Hossein, a political refugee; Cher, a mouthy, feisty, 15-year-old runaway; and Vesta, a retiree clinging to her rent-controlled basement flat.
There's more than one corpse lurking in this tightly told tale, and plenty of "look behind you!" moments. Marwood has perfected, chillingly well, the art of describing dead bodies being pushed, prodded, dragged, and manipulated in pretty much every imaginable situation with specifics both revolting and fascinating, and which include cringe-inducing images of "mozzarella flesh" that you'll be dying to get out of your mind.
Yet she never loses her sense of the comically surreal, even as someone is going about the serious business of murder. Who knew, for example, how much humor you could mine from a scene of an evildoer lugging a bag full of noisy human bones around? That, and the moment when the killer, in a fit of pique, throws a tea towel over one of his victims' heads because he doesn't like her accusatory look, had me laughing out loud.
But this book is also about contemporary cosmopolitan life, which can be terribly nasty and brutish. Through her characters, Marwood exposes multiple facets of city-centered loneliness and the ease with which people fall through the cracks, ending up alone and friendless, bereft of family and hope.
Whether she's tracing Cher's conflicting desperation of trying to blend in while fighting a sense of being irrelevant ("I'm just another Homeless, she thinks, so much nicer when you're talking about me on Facebook than I am in real life . . . [People] only help you if they think you matter") or Vesta's exchange of holiday cards with her sole cousin ("the last of her family, a single precious jewel among the seven billion"), Marwood's got a compassionate finger gently on the pulse of our social disconnect, that yawning void between the idea that online exchanges equal interpersonal involvement and what our social media chatter brutally leaves out.
Just as clearly, she captures snapshots of gentrification-in-progress, a lifestyle that's a million miles from Cher and Vesta's lives, even though it's right next door: "A burst of laughter . . . men and women together, talking in confident, ringing tones. The expensively educated in this country seem to have different voices . . . Not just the accent: the actual tone. It's as though money gives you extra lung power, the women's voices deeper, the men sounding as though their throats begin somewhere deep in their abdomens."
With her sophomore outing, Marwood has turned out not just a spooky, blood-and-guts thriller, but a cannily observant novel that exposes social fissures while delivering a modicum of hope: that people, however odd and at odds with each other, have the potential to slowly, inexorably, become a family.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic.