Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson
By K. L. Romo
One problem with having bipolar disorder is that sometimes people think you’re crazy. Even your own husband. And especially when you suspect you’re living next to a murderer.
In Peter Swanson’s new psychological thriller, BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM, Hen Mazur and Lloyd Harding have just moved to their new house in West Dartford, 45 minutes from Boston. Hen will use the converted warehouse down the street as her art studio—she’s a printmaker and illustrates children’s books. This new house and neighborhood will give her a fresh start.
Hen hasn’t had an “episode” for two years, since she started the medication cocktail that mended her broken brain, stabilized her moods, and tempered her paranoia and crippling depression.
At a neighborhood barbeque, Hen and Lloyd meet their next-door neighbors, Mira and Matthew Dolamore—another couple who doesn’t have kids and weren’t planning on any. The neighbors are pleasant enough, Matthew even charming. Until Hen notices a Junior Olympics fencing trophy on Matthew’s office mantel. It looks just like the trophy stolen from Dustin Miller, a young guy murdered in his apartment. Is it a coincidence that Dustin graduated from Sussex Hall where Matthew is a teacher? No way. But if Hen goes to the police, will anyone take her seriously?
Spying on Matthew is the only way she can prove he’s a murderer, and what she discovers terrifies her. To get the proof she needs, she must get to know him better. Is he a vigilante protecting women from abuse, or a psychotic killer?
How ironic that the only one who believes Hen’s accusations about Matthew being a killer is Matthew.
The spark that inspired BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM was the 1954 film Witness to Murder, in which Barbara Stanwyck looked out her window to see a man strangling a woman in the building next door.
“The movie, although forgettable, did get me wondering about a similar tale, but one in which the witness to a crime does have an actual history of mental instability and false accusations,” Swanson says. “What really interested me was the idea that the witness might form a relationship of sorts with the killer. Suddenly a plot began to form.”
Woven into this twisty-turny murder thriller is mental illness and the instability it causes. Maybe worse than not being able to rely on yourself is that other people might not believe you. How can they be sure you’re not being paranoid, or manic, or obsessive? The mere presence of mental illness makes you lose your credibility, even when you’re sure your meds are working.
Swanson shares why his heroine suffers from bipolar disorder.
“I wanted to write a story in which the protagonist, Hen Mazur, could be considered an unreliable witness. She’s struggled her whole life with mental health issues, and in her past, during a manic episode, she has falsely accused someone of murder,” he says. “Another reason is because bipolar is a disease that has affected someone very close to me, and I wanted to tell a story about someone living a successful life on medication to treat the disorder. Often, thrillers that portray characters with mental health issues do one of two things: they use the disease to make the protagonist do irrational things and distrust themselves; or the disease becomes a kind of superpower, one that allows the protagonist special insight into crime…. With this book, I wanted Hen’s disease to just be one facet of her personality.”
Swanson’s current work in progress is “steeped in the history of the detective novel.” In a disturbing tale of online postings which prompt a series of murders, “a bookseller writes a list of perfect murders in literature for his blog, and years later finds out that someone is using his list in a series of actual murders.”
Although Swanson has never had a terrifying experience with his neighbors—besides a dinner party that involved musical performances and zero alcoholic beverages, and once living across the street from a professional clown who used to sit in his bedroom in his costume—BEFORE SHE KNEW HIM begs the questions: How well do you know your neighbors, and how far would you go to find out?
Peter Swanson is the author of All the Beautiful Lies, Her Every Fear, The Kind Worth Killing, and The Girl with a Clock for a Heart. His stories and poems have appeared in The Atlantic and The Vocabula Review, among other publications. His second novel, The Kind Worth Killing, won the New England Society Book Award for fiction. He has degrees from Trinity College, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Emerson College and lives with his wife in Somerville, Massachusetts, where he is at work on his next novel.
To learn more about Peter, please visit his website.
- Your First Visit to ThrillerFest? I Know Exactly How You Feel - May 18, 2023
- Up Close: Allison Brennan - May 2, 2023
- On the Cover: Rick Mofina - May 2, 2023