Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, October 11, 2018

Thursday, October 11, 2018: Maximum Shelf: My Lovely Wife

Berkley Books: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

Berkley Books: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

Berkley Books: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

Berkley Books: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

My Lovely Wife

by Samantha Downing

Samantha Downing's My Lovely Wife should come with a warning: This thriller may lead to addictive reading. Do not attempt to do chores or operate heavy equipment while under its influence. If symptoms persist after four hours, keep reading until finished. There is no other treatment.

The novel opens seductively with a woman in a bar staring at the unnamed male narrator. He looks back; the two exchange flirtatious gazes and smiles. He walks over to her. "I am thirty-nine, in excellent shape with a full head of hair and a deep set of dimples, and my suit fits better than any glove.... I am the man she has in mind," he tells himself. He's confident he has her attention.

He takes out a phone, types: "Hello. My name is Tobias," followed by, "I am deaf."

This is not what the woman expects, but she can't reject him for being deaf. She stays, they flirt some more and end up spending the night together, at the end of which she asks, "Are you really deaf?"

He isn't. His name isn't even Tobias. He leaves, wondering how he slipped up.

The man goes home and tells his wife that the woman at the bar isn't "the one." What is going on here?

The answer to that is deliciously dark and twisted. It's best to read My Lovely Wife without knowing much about it ahead of time, but since the book description calls it Dexter meets Mr. & Mrs. Smith, it seems the cat is already out of the bag, and will probably get killed.

As devious as the narrator is, he's not the most disturbing character. That crown is easily worn by his wife of 15 years, the flame-haired, green-eyed Millicent, who's as stunning as she is terrifying. Some couples turn to role-playing or toys to spice up their sex life, but Millicent and her hubby use murder as foreplay.

Millicent is not a character readers will soon forget. She is refreshingly unapologetic; there's no sad backstory to explain or mitigate her behavior. Millicent isn't conflicted about her actions; she revels in them. Stories about evil men have been written ad infinitum, so it's a neat role reversal to have a woman take the lead. As authors like Gillian Flynn have done, Downing digs into the multidimensionality of women, including the parts that make them heinous.

But Millicent also has qualities that are admirable. She makes juggling her career and motherhood--oh, yes, she procreated--seem effortless, cooking dinner for the family after a full day at work, staying on top of the kids' homework and disciplining them when they step out of line. She provides a sense of order for her family. She's free of neuroses and, once she sets a goal, no one should bet against her accomplishing it. If it weren't for her homicidal hobby, she might be considered a model mom, envied for having and doing it all.

While thoroughly modern, Millicent's name has a classic ring to it, and she resembles the kind of femme fatale who appears in stories by great noir novelists like James M. Cain. Phyllis Nirdlinger from Cain's Double Indemnity comes to mind. Like Phyllis, Millicent is bad news every night of the week, but all who meet her are powerless to resist her.

Millicent's husband is the one who experiences the occasional conflict. As he contemplates murder and how to get away with it, he worries about his children, especially his daughter, Jenna, who's anxious about the possibility of a killer in town (the kids are oblivious to their parents' dark side). He tells his wife she's demented--while he's grinning. He justifies his deeds as keeping his wife happy--isn't that part of being a good husband?

All this may sound bloodthirsty, but My Lovely Wife is suspenseful without being gory. The most gruesome events happen off the page so squeamish readers needn't worry. Downing also ensures eyeballs stay glued to her book with snappy prose, zippy pacing, short chapters and a dry sense of humor. Describing a detective: "Today her suit is an ugly color of grey, like flannel, though it isn't, because this is Florida and that would be ridiculous." It's telling that the killers are sexy while the cops are dull.

It would be insulting to say My Lovely Wife is incredible for being Downing's first published novel, or for being written by someone who never formally trained as a writer. It's a remarkable achievement, full stop. Like Millicent and her husband watching their potential victims, readers should keep their eyes on Downing's work. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Berkley, $26, hardcover, 384p., 9780451491725, March 26, 2019

Berkley Books: My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing

Samantha Downing: Proudly Disturbed

photo: Jacqueline Dallimore

Despite never having formally studied writing, Bay Area native Samantha Downing has written a dozen novels over the past two decades. My Lovely Wife is the first manuscript she submitted. This domestic thriller was snapped up by Berkley and will be published on March 26, 2019. Downing lives in New Orleans.

You and your agent, Barbara Poelle, clicked during your first conversation because you told her you were sick and disturbed. So, exactly how disturbed are you?

Great question! The best way I know to answer is with a story. Not long ago, I went on vacation with some friends. We saw an old motor home sitting in front of a nearby house. I made the mistake of wondering out loud if someone was being held captive inside of it, and said if we stared at it long enough, I bet we'd see someone's hand pressed up against the window or something. One of my friends said, "It must be terrible to be inside your head." I'm disturbed enough to make people say things like that.

Writers sometimes say all their characters contain parts of them. Which parts of which characters from My Lovely Wife do you identify with most?

Millicent is certainly a control freak. I am, too. Maybe as much as she is. For Millicent's husband, I think the part of him I identify with is his ability to draw a line. Once he makes that decision, it's final. Jenna, their daughter, is a strong girl, trying to figure out how to protect herself in a chaotic situation. I hope I am half as clever as she is. And their son, Rory, is a smart aleck. I am definitely that.

Millicent is strikingly unapologetic; she has no tragic explanation for her behavior. Do you think she, and people like her, are born that way, i.e., it's nature over nurture?

Absolutely. People are born with a variety of personalities, looks and brain chemistries. People do wonderful things and horrible things, often for what seems like no reason. I believe someone like Millicent can be born, not made.

Why do Millicent and her husband find murder so sexy? And while some targets are chosen for specific purposes, why does the couple consider only female victims, even when fantasizing? 

Their murders were a progression. The first was unplanned; the second, a result of the first. Both were women, and what happened in those murders is the feeling [Millicent and her husband] continually try to re-create. The excitement of doing it--and of getting away with it--all links back to the original murder.

I thought about male victims, both in this book and as the topic of another novel. One of my dream projects is to write a book very similar to so many movies we've seen--with a man who keeps young women locked in a basement--but with the genders reversed--a woman who captures young men and locks them up the same way.

There are practicalities to it that must be addressed. The disparity in strength, for one. If a woman knocked out a man and had to drag that amount of dead weight into a basement... well, it's possible, but not without mechanical or human help. Also, one or more young men can easily overpower the average woman. Technology can help (cameras, stun guns, etc.), but all those complications would have to be addressed to make it believable.

That was probably too much information, wasn't it?

Your bio states you'd like to write books that make people walk into walls. Which books have made you crash into walls the hardest, and what made them so captivating?

I love this feeling. When a book is so compelling, so enthralling, that you cannot put it down for even a second. There's something about this that is so personal between the reader and writer. Sometimes it's because of a character; other times it's the pace of the story. Or it could be that a particular story at a particular moment of my life resonates strongly enough to make me forget everything else.

My crash-into-walls-books that stand out over the years:

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The First Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
In the Woods by Tana French
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Writing has always been a hobby for you. Will this change with publication and a two-book deal?

At this point, it has moved from hobby to a second job--and I'm not complaining one bit! I still love it more than anything.

Tease us with tidbits about your next book.

My next book is a thriller. Without giving away too much, I'll say it’s about a terrible night, the choices made and the consequences of them. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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