Peering Through the Curtains at the
Couple Next Door
By Dawn Ius
“Love thy neighbor” the Bible quotes, but if the recent trend in psychological thrillers has any influence, “fear” might be a more apt emotion.
In the past few years, domestic thrillers have ruled the marketplace, with novels like Gone Girl prompting us to ask: How well do we really know the person that sleeps beside us? But a new crop of thrillers in this subgenre encourage us to peer through the curtains and take a harder look at our neighbors. Could the cul-de-sac recluse be a serial killer? What exactly is in “The Smiths’” garbage that smells like rotting flesh?
The questions are endless, and they’re exactly the kind authors like Shari Lapena want you to ask. Lapena’s The Couple Next Door explores the alternative personalities of seemingly perfect neighbors, while author Alex Marwood makes it pretty clear what the characters of The Killer Next Door think of someone in their housing complex.
These kinds of books often rely on a noxious neighbor to carry the suspense, but more often than not, it’s the narrator’s perception of the people in the neighborhood rather than the actual neighbors themselves that creates the conflict. And according to some fans of the genre, you don’t need to be a writer to make that stuff up. The proverbial “people next door,” says Seattle resident Trevor Guthrie, are ripe for the imagination.
“My next door neighbor is a hoarder, and when I stand on my back deck, I can see into his treed yard. There are giant Tupperware containers everywhere,” he says. “Like, hundreds of them. The kind big enough to hold body parts. And of course, that’s what my wife and I imagine is in them. At least we do now that we’re both reading a lot of domestic suspense novels.”
The Guthries live on a quiet cul-de-sac where, for the most part, everyone gets along. They’ve hosted more than a couple block parties, and when anyone goes on vacation, there’s always someone to keep an “eye on the place.” Except for the “hoarder house” where the blinds are always drawn, the police are always visiting, and the grass grows tall enough on the front lawn to hide a strange number of dead birds.
Not that Guthrie would volunteer for the job—partially because the place creeps him out a little, but also, because there’s something “fun” about imagining the worst. The logical part of his brain knows that his neighbor is likely not a serial killer, and if he took a look inside those Tupperware containers, he’d be more likely to find a collection of car parts than femurs.
Which is exactly what Sarah Boone thought she’d discovered in her Montana back yard when she looked out her kitchen window to see her dog gnawing on something that looked like a human bone.
“I’ll never forget it,” she says, laughing now, despite remembering being almost paralyzed with fear. “My little poodle looked up at me, and her white fur was just caked in blood, and there was this bone hanging from her jaw. I was so startled I dropped a glass and it shattered on the floor.”
It’s good that Boone didn’t call 911 before braving her back yard for a closer look. As it turns out, the lady next door was tired of the dog barking at her and to try and earn its trust, she threw it a bone—a femur from a deer her husband had harvested on his weekend hunting trip.
“Of course, then I started imagining that he had some poor animal hanging in his basement, and that easily morphed into me thinking that they had corpses too—which is pretty silly in retrospect since now we’re really good friends. We go over for dinner all the time. I like venison.”
The dog? Not so much.
It’s these kinds of real-life stories that feed the imaginations of authors, and prompt them to pen adrenaline-pumping thrillers about the creeps that actually do have evil intentions. The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet gives off a distinct “Single White Female” next door vibe with one neighbor seemingly obsessed with another, the neighbors in Lisa Jewell’s The Girls in the Garden are decidedly untrustworthy, and in Peter Swanson’s Before She Knew Him, one woman is absolutely convinced her neighbor is a murderer.
In reality, the premise isn’t overly far-fetched. Despite a drop in the U.S. rate murder rate in 2018—down about five percent from the previous year—people continue to die at the hands of others. And those “others” live somewhere—perhaps next to you.
That was the case for Rob and Susie Munroe—who have asked to keep their real names and location anonymous. When a major murder case was solved in their neighborhood last year, not only did the killer live next door to them, they had spent many nights in his back yard drinking beers around a fire pit, never once suspecting the always-smiling man with a love for fixing up old cars had a much more deviant hobby on the side.
“My wife wants to move,” Rob says. “But I’m not so sure. The place was a spectacle for a few months, and now it’s just this abandoned old place where a bad guy used to live. It’s like a train wreck—you just can’t look away. I read those kinds of books all the time—Peter Swanson’s new book is fantastic—but I knew at the end it was all just fiction.”
Still, he says he isn’t too worried that the rest of the neighborhood is home to crooks and killers.
“I’m usually a pretty good judge of character,” he says. “Maybe I messed up this time—he really did seem like a stand-up guy—but I think I know our neighbors pretty well. They’re good people.”
But are they really? Some of today’s bestselling fiction suggests you should think twice before answering.