My Lovely Wife

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

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