The Kind Worth Saving by Peter Swanson

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Reviewed by Harriet

You never know what you’re going to get with a Peter Swanson novel, though you can be sure of intelligent, challenging mysteries, interesting and almost invariably warped characters, and frequently quite shocking twists. Oh yes, and murder too. One of my earliest reviews for Shiny, back in 2015, was of his second novel, The Kind Worth Killing, and for twists I don’t think any of the others have quite reached that level again. All of his novels – and there’s been one almost every year since 2014 – have been standalone, though they generally take place in or around Boston. So, although the title of this latest one is an obvious echo with a twist (of course) of The Kind Worth Killing, it took me a while to realise we were actually meeting two of the central figures in that novel. But in fact right at the beginning Henry Kimball, the policeman from the earlier novel, puts in an appearance,  though he’s now a private eye, and later on so does the fascinating Lily Kintner. These two have history of a complex kind, the nature of which is revealed and developed through The Kind Worth Saving. However much of this novel centres round two wholly new characters, Joan Whelan (née Grieve) and Richard Seddon.

When an attractive young woman walks into his office at the start of the novel, Kimball takes a moment to recognise her as the Joan Grieve who was in his Senior honors English class during his short spell as a schoolteacher many years earlier. She tells him that her husband Richard is having an affair – she knows it for certain but she needs evidence to get a divorce, and she’s willing to pay Kimball the going rate to provide the proof she needs. He agrees. He does remember her but she’s associated in his mind with a very disturbing event that took place in the classroom one day. That’s all the information the reader gets for the moment.

The story then switches to Joan’s point of view, with something that happened when she was a teenager, on a rather reluctant holiday on the coast of Maine with her parents. Duane, a slightly older boy, starts to pursue her, invites her to a beach party which turns out to be just himself and Joan, and attempts to rape her. Furious, Joan hatches a plot for revenge, and involves Duane’s cousin Richard, who is only too happy to help as he also loathes Duane. All goes well, Duane is disposed of, and nobody suspects a thing. This is hardly a spoiler, as it takes place in the second chapter. But there’s so much more to come.

I said in the first paragraph that Swanson is noted for his twists. In fact although there’s one halfway through, this novel works in a different way. As with its predecessor, there are several narrators – in addition to Kimball and Joan there’s also Richard, and later Lily steps in and ends up playing an important part in events.  Most notably, however, Swanson feeds out information gradually throughout the novel, sometimes moving backwards in time to do so but more often through conversations between Joan and Richard, or through the thought processes and memories of the various narrators. It’s not until quite near the end that the reader is in full possession of what has motivated Joan, in particular, to do the things we discover she has done. This then is not a whodunnit, as the who is clear from the start; it’s more of a whydidtheydoit, because although some of the motivation is apparent, the real depth of psychological dysfunction is not revealed until almost the end. As for Henry Kimball, I would say he’s a more or less wholly moral character – more or less because he does sleep with a woman he’s supposed to be tailing – though not without carrying some damage from some of his life experiences, including nearly dying from a stab wound and witnessing a classroom shooting. He writes limericks, often as an outlet for some of his suspicions, one of which threatens to put him in real danger towards the end. And then there’s Lily Kintner, who manages to be somehow on the side of the angels despite having done some pretty shocking things in her life. If you’ve read The Kind Worth Killing you will recognise Henry and Lily and enjoy seeing how their complicated relationship develops. If you haven’t, no matter, as this will still remain an exceptionally fascinating novel. 

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Peter Swanson, The Kind Worth Saving (Faber, 2020). 978-0571373550, 320pp., hardback.

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