The Kind Worth Killing

  • By Peter Swanson
  • HarperCollins
  • 311 pp.
  • Reviewed by A.X. Ahmad
  • March 18, 2015

A camera-ready mystery made for the silver screen.

Peter Swanson’s new mystery, The Kind Worth Killing, is intricately plotted, fast-paced, and made up of tightly constructed scenes. It’s no surprise that it has already been optioned for a film adaptation; the novel would make a great summer blockbuster. But this is not unbridled good news. The very qualities that could make it a successful film result in an uneven literary experience.

The Kind Worth Killing is billed as a twist on Patricia Highsmith’s classic novel, Strangers on a Train. In Highsmith’s story, two strangers meet on a train and agree to murder one another’s family members in the perfect, unsolvable crime.

In Swanson’s update, Ted Severson, a wealthy Internet investor, meets Lilly Kintner, a stunning redhead, at an airport bar. After a couple of martinis, Ted confides to Lilly that his wife, Miranda, is having an affair and half-seriously says that he should kill her. To his surprise, Lilly says that she’ll help him plot the perfect murder.

Alternating between Ted and Lilly’s points of view, the early chapters reveal more about their pasts, including Ted’s relationship with dark-haired vixen Miranda.

Swanson, a skillful prose stylist, shades Lilly’s seemingly bucolic childhood, growing up under two bohemian parents in rural Connecticut, with creepy subsurface details, such as the disused swimming pool in her backyard: “Over the years it had devolved back into a murky pond, its bottom and sides covered in algae, its surface constantly filmed in rotting leaves, its unused filter clogged with the bloated corpses of mice and squirrels.”

As the novel advances, Ted and Lilly grow closer but continue to hide secrets from each other. The plot alternates between the environs of Boston, where Ted and Lilly both live, and a seaside town in Maine, where Ted’s wife is supervising the building of a vacation McMansion. Miranda is also sleeping with her contractor, an aging bad boy named Brad. Swanson dexterously handles the back-and-forth between both worlds, between past and present, and between the two points of view.

As the planning for the murder progresses, the novel moves forward seamlessly, and the reader begins to wonder how the author will tie together the multiple plot strands. More points of view are added, and as new narrators emerge, the plot twists and turns so often that the reader is left breathless and off-kilter. The ending, too, is a tour-de-force of plotting, re-opening a situation that appears to be resolved. The result is that the book lives on in the reader’s mind past its ending.

But something else happens at end of The Kind Worth Killing, an experience that will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time sitting through a big-budget blockbuster movie. It is a kind of numbness and weariness, a mental whiplash from surviving relentless jolts.

Problematic, too, is the way the story relies on character tropes. Although Lilly, the red-haired sociopath, is wonderfully drawn, other characters — Ted, the rich businessman; Miranda, the sexually unfaithful younger wife; and Brad, the hunky but slightly dim contractor — remain workmanlike stereotypes. When brought to life on the big screen, skilled actors can give these characters nuance, but that depth does not exist on the page.

Film could smooth out other clunky aspects of the novel, too. The new points of view that come late in the story require a certain suspension of disbelief; this would be perfectly acceptable in a movie. The final chapters would also play better on film: The same scene is told, virtually verbatim, from two points of view, which is tiring to read but could unfold cleverly on the screen.

The spirit of “more is better” pervades other aspects of the book. Along with the many twists and points of view, the novel boasts not one, but two sociopaths. Although one of them is very well drawn, and we understand her motivations, the second seems gratuitous.

But these are quibbles. Swanson is clearly a writer for our times. Some reader at an airport is going to buy The Kind Worth Killing and be swept away for the duration of a transatlantic flight. Better still, with any luck, in a couple of years, this reader will be able to watch it as an in-flight movie.

A.X. Ahmad is author of The Caretaker and The Last Taxi Ride.

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