Who are “The Kind Worth Killing”? A faithless wife, a seducer of other people’s lovers, a child molester? What about seemingly respectable adults who meet on an overseas flight and plan a murder? That’s the question implicitly posed by Peter Swanson’s enjoyable thriller with that title.
When the filthy rich Ted Severson meets the ethereally beautiful Lily Kintner while flying home from London to Boston, he’s fuming but unfocused. He knows his gorgeous wife, Miranda, has been unfaithful; he has witnessed her having sex with their contractor, Brad, in the couple’s unfinished dream house on the Maine coast. But he does not yet know what he wants to do about it.
A few drinks later, he has articulated his rage — he wants to kill her — and his cool, collected seatmate urges him to think realistically about the possibility. The beginnings of a plot are formed. This opening begs comparison to Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train” (or the Hitchcock movie of the same), but Swanson’s thriller is both more and less.
For starters, the author, a Somerville resident, enjoys a much higher body count, as that initial plot proves to be just one of many. Miranda, it turns out, has her own agenda, which reaches beyond the hunky contractor, and Lily has contended earlier with her own heartbreak. Alternating narratives between these and other characters, Swanson goes back and forth in time, reveling in connections that often prove deadly for the unwary or forgetful.
While this is a fun read, full of switchbacks and double crosses, it lacks the subtlety and strange credibility that characterize even Highsmith’s oddest work. In Swanson’s hands, the multiple voices tend to sound alike, and some key plot points — like a dangerous nut allergy — are revealed clumsily and too close to their implementation.
In addition, the two main female characters are thriller stereotypes — big-breasted femme fatales who “disguise” themselves by tucking their cascading hair under caps. And while Swanson seems to have little empathy for them, the complete and utter venality of one of these women — “He gave me the money in cash. It was a good relationship” — would have been better served with more backstory.
No matter, in a thriller of this sort, some motives cannot be questioned. Some people are simply greedy, just as others simply deserve death (at least to the psychopath who does the killing), and unlikable — or, at least, unsympathetic — lead characters are par for the course.
The means, however, could have been handled more smoothly. Several of the murders — particularly a strangulation by wire coat hanger — seem unwieldy and potentially easy to detect, and the disposal of bodies, while it serves a final plot twist, is awkward.
This almost doesn’t matter, as Swanson’s police are particularly inept. A murder is considered the result of a botched robbery, even though there are no signs of a break-in, and a key cop commits an astoundingly stupid act that sabotages his investigation.
Yet, somehow, these false notes barely register. With classic misdirection, Swanson distracts us from the details — changing up murderers and victims fast enough to keep us reading. And, implausibly, rooting for the cold-blooded killer at this thriller’s core.
Clea Simon, author of 16 mysteries, can be reached at cleasimon.com.