Author and teacher Christopher Swann once heard from his parents about an unnerving incident that occurred late in the evening at their home. A young woman came to the door, on the run from a bad situation she’d found herself in, and begged them to let her in. Fortunately for all concerned, her pursuers did not track her down and eventually went away, but the story made Swann think about how he would have reacted if he’d been there and events had taken a more violent turn. He has put his speculations to good use in this novel--his second thriller.
Ethan Faulkner, the story’s protagonist, is a man in his late 20s with a terrible tragedy in his past. When he was thirteen and his sister, Susannah, was nine, two men invaded their home one evening looking for a woman who was trying to get away from them. In the resulting chaos, Ethan’s parents were both shot to death, and the killers left with the young woman; the police were never able to solve the crime. Ethan and Susannah were both shot as well, but eventually recovered.
The emotional wounds they suffered, though, prove to be longer-lasting, particularly since both Ethan and Susannah feel terrible guilt about the ways in which their own actions contributed to the outcome. Ethan deals with the pain by locking the memories away in a dark corner of his brain; in this way he has managed to get through school and college and create a relatively happy, normal life for himself as a private-high-school English teacher, with a pleasant apartment and a cute dog. Susannah, though, has gone a different route. Always a brilliant but difficult child, her surly, often cruel behavior increases after the tragedy, and she also develops a reckless streak that leads to another violent incident in her teens that sends Ethan’s best friend to prison. She has been in and out of mental hospitals for treatment of suicidal impulses, and spends much of her time on the road, popping back into Ethan’s life now and then. Both siblings have a sporadic, awkward relationship with their Uncle Gavin, their mother’s brother, who became their guardian after the shooting. Gavin runs a successful Atlanta bar, but he and his sister and brother-in-law were estranged, thanks to his vaguely criminal involvements. While he clearly cares about Ethan and Susannah, they’ve spent most of their time avoiding him since they became adults.
When Susannah shows up unannounced at Ethan’s apartment for her latest visit, he has just had a one-night stand with an attractive woman named Marisa whom he met at a teacher’s conference in town. Soon afterwards, she is hired at his school to fill in for a teacher who’s gone on maternity leave, and she quickly makes it clear that she’s interested in continuing their relationship, much to Ethan’s delight. Things are wonderful at first, but before long Ethan is troubled by Marisa’s increasingly possessive, controlling attitude toward him. When she starts interfering with his teaching in weird ways and then takes an obsessive interest in his parents’ murders, he breaks off their affair. Marisa’s response to the break-up will put Ethan’s career and his relationship with Susannah in jeopardy before things spin even further out of control with a series of murders that may or may not be connected to the crime committed fifteen years earlier.
Swann’s characters are three-dimensional and their actions and reactions are believable. He also does an excellent job of portraying the inner workings of a private high school, and he includes numerous evocative descriptions of various neighborhoods around Atlanta. His book is highly recommended for readers who prefer a PG-13 (as opposed to R) level of sex, violence and intensity in their thrillers.