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By Peter Swanson


I went through a bad spell at my day job a few years ago. It began in March. I was working for a woman who had been a friend for over three years.She’d always had a reputation for creating discord that engendered a kind of mean-girl hatred around the office but I was a nice guy who’d never experienced it firsthand. That began to change when she called me into her office to talk about a client budget and kept me waiting while she gave one of her kids a lecture about homework over the phone. I’d heard this biting, “no-nonsense” tone before, because there had been so many of these conversations with children and stepchildren that had bled into the work day. Her eyes met mine and then narrowed as I stood at the door, giving me the feeling there was something kind of craziness going on behind them. Assuming the call had come in unexpectedly, I listened for about two seconds before stepping back out because I didn’t want to intrude.

I went back to my office and waited for her to call and apologize for delaying the meeting, and to let me know she was ready to see me. When that didn’t happen I sent her an email:

Let me know when you’re ready to meet about the budget.

Her response came a millisecond later:

Uh – 15 minutes ago.  I’ve been waiting.

I frowned as I read it, wondering if I’d somehow misread the encounter – wondering if she had actually expected me to stand there like an underling and listen while she berated her son. I picked up my notebook and tried to ignore my off-centered feeling as I headed back into her office.

The crazy eye-narrowing thing happened again as I stepped through the door. In retrospect I remember two reactions. One was that I had somehow taken the place of the 14-year-old son who had behaved so egregiously. The second was that I was actually caught up in some really odd stuff going through her mind, and that the meeting request and the phone conversation and the delayed start were all carefully orchestrated to break my kneecaps even before I sat down across from her desk.

Both reactions were on target, because the next several months were filled with wide-awake nights that forced me to realize I was dealing with a sociopath who had a scheme to build up her prestige in the office by taking me down, and make-believe days when I actually thought I might be able to change her. Despite the gut feeling that virtually all of her life’s satisfaction came from sucking the life out of “weaker” beings, I did my best to stick to my belief that there’s good in every soul, if you can just find a way to bring it out.

If you’re rolling your own eyes now, you’re right. It didn’t happen. Every moment of projected goodwill on my part only pushed her further into her determination to instill pain that had nothing to do with the quality of the work and everything to do with her obsessive need to press her foot into my neck and pin me to the ground. It would have been bad enough if I hadn’t read Gone Girl during the middle of it. As you probably know, the book was about a sociopath who was attractive and charming and more evil than any villain you’re apt to remember. But it became even more terrifying as I came to realize I was completely outgunned when it came to the mind games, that made me feel like a blind-folded duck in a real-life shooting gallery virtually every day.

Which brings me to the point of this review . . . about brilliantly written books about brilliantly bad people who look and outwardly act like the normal people we encounter every day. Gone Girl”s Amy was that character. THE KIND WORTH KILLING has two of them. It’s a story about a guy who finds out his wife is a cheater and who gives in to a seductive ploy by a seductive woman who offers to kill her. The wife, Miranda, is shallow-bad – a sorority babe who marries for money and hatches a short-cut scheme to acquire her husband’s riches. She describes her plans in first-person narration without the slightest moment of conscience. Lily, the woman who plans to kill her, is more analytically bad, because she comes up with reasons to justify her crimes. My old boss didn’t succeed in her scheme. In fact years of badness brought her world down like a house of cards. But as you watch Lily’s mechanizations you’ll experience the kind of charisma that makes it feel like she’s going to get away with everything. Both of the men who are caught up in the story’s noirish turns are perfectly depicted as saps – a la William Hurt losing his mind to Kathleen Turner in the 1980s hit, Body Heat. Both of the women come off as 10 times smarter, and capable of more bad things than either guy could imagine.

Conventional wisdom (which Gillian Flynn and Peter Swanson probably heard from plenty of agents and publishers) is that “there always has to be one character to root for.”  Fortunately, they both mostly ignored that mindset. Both of the unreliable narrators in Gone Girl are bad (although Amy’s a lot worse) . . . and Swanson waits until THE KIND WORTH KILLING is about two-thirds over before bringing in the good-guy-you-want-to-root-for (a cute detective who writes limericks). But as nearly 1,700 Amazon customer reviews testify, Swanson’s book is a whirlpool that sucks you in deeper and deeper, thanks to characters that are just too disturbingly true-to-life. It’s the best bad-character book I’ve read since Gone Girl – with a story that will encourage me to pay far more attention the next time I see that scarily shrewd narrowing of the eyes from someone I thought I knew so well.

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