Peter Swanson’s debut opens with a man, George Foss, crossing crime-scene tape to enter a deserted house. “I’ll know what I’m looking for when I find it,” he says to himself. What he finds is a copy of “Rebecca’’ by Daphne du Maurier with a postcard of Tulum, Mexico, tucked inside. And just like that, within four pages of this thriller, you’re hooked.
George is a man in the throes of a peevish midlife crisis: He’s got a solid job (business manager at a well-respected literary publication); an attractive friend-with-benefits (Irene, by name, to whom he refuses to commit); a rent-controlled Boston apartment; and a Saab that he loves more than Irene. Plus, he has all his own hair.
Still, “[a]pproaching forty, George felt as though his world had been slowly drained of all its colors. He’d passed that age when he could reasonably expect to fall madly in love with someone and raise a family, or to take the world by storm, or to have anything surprising lift him out of his day-to-day existence.”
When his college girlfriend — she with the titular timepiece for a heart —
That’s a lot of emotional baggage to be packing when you turn up in someone’s life after 20 years and ask for help, as Liana does with George.
As soon as George agrees to listen to Liana — for old times’ sake, you understand, and maybe because he just can’t stay away from her — the narrative breaks into unevenly alternating chapters of contemporary Boston and George and Liana’s Connecticut college connection.
A week of dalliance during an ice storm was the pinnacle of their young love, but then Liana abruptly disappeared from George’s life under highly disconcerting circumstances.
The college-aged George hops a bus to Sweetgum, Liana’s airless Florida hometown, in search of closure while middle-aged George battles Beantown’s smothering heat in a bid to discover the truth about the love of his life. Again.
In Boston, the tale that Liana spins for George is rife with intrigue: See, there’s a shady, married furniture dealer who’s been keeping her as his mistress but now wants to end things. She’s absconded with $500,000 of his cash and is hiding it in a train station locker.
She’s also terrified of a bone-crushing baddie named Donnie Jenks. (George has the bad luck to cross paths with him.) She lays her cards on the table: She wants to pay George to play go-between for her and the furniture dealer, returning the money to him in exchange for his calling off Jenks.
All this while allowing George provocative glimpses of her breasts. Everything about Liana, her obvious story, and her even more obvious bosom screams red-hot alarm bells, but George takes the bait anyway; just seeing her “was like hearing a song he knew every note of but hadn’t heard for twenty years.” Besides, as he notes at one point, “It’s been a boring summer.”
While you might want to grab George and give him a good shake, the parallel stories unwind relentlessly with audacious and spectacular twists, doubling back, finally, to that copy of “Rebecca’’ in the deserted house. An intense mix of noir, pulp fiction, and fun — you can tell that Swanson, a Boston native, is happily in his element here — the novel is laden with atmospheric, evocative descriptions, ripe for cinematic translation. The most unsurprising aspect of this book? It’s already been optioned for a film.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.