The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

★★☆☆☆ (2/5)

Drama, drama, drama! Less of a mystery, “The Couple Next Door” has echoes of a TV episode from a series made to fill the 5 pm time slot. Predictable to the point of anguish, it is an arresting mystery-thriller, saturated with stylistic and fluid narrative style which make it a brief and easy read.

The premise is interesting: a couple, Anne and Marco, have gone over to their neighbours’ for a dinner party, leaving their six-month baby Cora alone in the house. When they finally return late night, they find the child missing from her crib. Police are called, detectives appear (Rasbach and Jennings), extended family is questioned, suspicions are placed and misplaced, intentions are disclosed, personal histories unravel and so on.

My issue with this story is the treatment of an exciting premise to the point of absolute weariness and utter predictability. Over time, suspicions are placed first on the mother Anne, then the father Marco and lastly, and out of the blue, at Anne’s step-father Richard. This begs the question as to why the author conveniently left out Anne’s mother Alice out of the equation. Similarly, the neighbouring couple Cynthia and Graham are conveniently neglected for most of the book, only to be utilized as a prop for last-minute-gasps.

A daft father

“He is alone. He has lost the two people who matter most to him in the world, his wife and his child. Nothing else matters anymore.”

Firstly, kidnapping of Cora by her own father is ridiculous to say the least. The author goes into exhaustive detail about Marco’s intention behind staging a terrible deal, from which the guilt ensues. The writer spares no words to coil reader’s sympathy towards Marco as a father and in doing so Lapena ignores a fundamental fact – Marco’s actions make him despicable no matter how his actions are spun. Why does a realisation of immeasurable love for his wife and child surface only after having done something terrible? The very act of abduction, no matter how innocently it was planned, negates the whole foundation of father-daughter relationship. Why would he seek such horrific means for mere monetary purposes even if his intention with the money was to keep his family happy at the end? An answer to all this is simple: Marco is an idiot. He is undeserving of all the rationalisations the author attribute to his actions.

An irrelevant detective

“He wants to find her. Then he reminds himself not to be hopeful. He must remain objective. He can’t afford to become emotionally invested in his cases. He would never survive.”

Secondly, the character of detective Rasbach is my least favourite. I’m unable to account for his biased approach in dealing with the case from the very start. Narrative suspicions reflect his partiality towards blaming the parents. He is neither adept at what he does, nor contributes to the general plot through objectivity required of his profession. He is a conflicted character, half-formed, pessimistic in dealing with suspicions attached to the parents yet awfully optimistic in pursuing facts which lead to a dead end. I vouched for his failure, and was glad to see him fall short of all expectations a reader usually attaches with the character of a detective.

“Rasbach has been suspicious of Richard Dries almost from the start.”

Nowhere was this little detail mentioned before. The detective raves, almost maddeningly, about suspecting Anne and Marco. As a first for Richard, this sentence is evident of why the prose seems unthinking at times. Anne’s English teacher has a remarkable memory for full names, Marco is able to see his wife’s expressions in a dark room, and Anne’s mental history has almost no immediate bearing to the story.

The hurried ending

The ending felt rushed as if the author was keen on tying up all the loose ends which had frayed farther away. Kidnappers are identified, deserted characters are given one final spotlight, intentions are unfurled, and an almost happy ending is given shock value treatment.

Would recommend this only to those who wish to spare a day for mindless entertainment.

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