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The Downstairs Neighbor


The Downstairs Neighbor

From debut novelist Helen Cooper comes THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR, a perfectly addicting thriller about the game of telephone that occurs when we think we know the people who live next to --- or below --- us.

Set in suburban London, the book takes place in a converted Georgian house divided into three flats. The privileged and gorgeous Harlows --- Paul, Steph and their teenage daughter, Freya --- occupy the top two floors; artsy Emma lives with her disgruntled hamster on the ground floor; and married couple Chris and Vicky make their home in the basement flat, an apartment with a private entrance that keeps them separate from their neighbors. One night, when Emma is feeding her hamster in his gloomy cupboard under the stairs, she overhears Steph leaving a message for Freya. Steph is frantic and worried: her daughter’s phone is off, and even at 17, it is unlike her not to let her parents know if she will be home late.

"[T]his is an instantly intriguing novel, and while Cooper is certainly ambitious in her plotting, her ability to maintain tension, drop clues and hold her reader’s attention speaks to an impressive talent for mystery writing."

As the hours pass, it becomes clear that Freya is not just visiting a friend or shopping at the mall, and the police begin to treat her disappearance as a missing persons case. Emma is immediately swept up in the investigation, and as she eavesdrops on her neighbors from her convenient cubby under the stairs, she learns that the perfect Harlows are not all they seem to be. Their arguments are escalating, and when the police ask if they have any lead suspects or enemies, Paul requests a private audience with them, indicating that his past is not all that clean. Steph, meanwhile, begins to worry about an altercation with Chris, who was Freya’s driving instructor and who spent an inordinate amount of time with his gorgeous young pupil --- and was the last person to see her. As the police question every member of the house, each household becomes suspicious of the others, even as their own secrets start to come to light.

Alternating --- often at breakneck speed --- between these three sets of neighbors, Cooper highlights the ways that Freya’s disappearance is not only forcing these neighbors together, but also bringing to light their most devastating secrets. We learn that Paul has an enemy from the years that he spent as an undercover detective before abruptly leaving the police force and never discussing it again, Emma is going through a dysfunctional period with the man who used to live with her, and Chris and Vicky’s relationship is crumbling. With each character hiding something, it is easy to suspect each one of knowing more about Freya than they are letting on, but even more shocking are the ways that their secrets, lies and coverups have drawn them together.

As Cooper thrusts readers into the lives of her characters, a separate, decades-old story starts to unfold in alternating chapters featuring Kate, a teenager who watches her mother fall victim to domestic abuse. Although Kate is not obviously connected to any of Cooper’s present-day characters, her story is equally compelling, and Cooper’s depictions of domestic violence and the burden it places on families are as intricately written as the mystery at the heart of the story.

With so many characters, two timelines and a scintillating mystery, it is tricky to share much more about the plot without revealing too much. What I can say is that this is an instantly intriguing novel, and while Cooper is certainly ambitious in her plotting, her ability to maintain tension, drop clues and hold readers' attention speaks to an impressive talent for mystery writing. Although it is a little difficult to keep the characters straight at first, her use of the three-story townhouse keeps the narrative tidy and helps to cement each character in your mind. By the time you have them pinned down, their individual stories whisk you away with twists, turns and surprising reveals. While some backstories are a bit predictable, Cooper’s ability to write the emotions of her characters makes her uses of tropes and stereotypes feel new and fresh, and the overwhelming guilt shared by all of her characters adds a compelling edge to this fast-paced novel.

While I was eager to solve the mystery of Freya’s disappearance and figure out Kate’s connection to the other characters, I will say that the pacing was a little haphazard; the beginning moves so fast that I barely had time to care about Freya or why she was missing. I found myself much more interested in the other characters and their backstories, especially Kate and Emma. Although Freya was the catalyst for the unraveling of the other characters’ lives, she almost fell by the wayside as they took center stage. This is not only because of the rushed beginning; the reveals that followed felt so real and organic that I became much more invested in them.

With its numerous characters and double plotlines, THE DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBOR is an ambitious debut, but Helen Cooper has revealed herself to be an impressive new talent, and I foresee a very bright future for this newcomer to the thriller genre. Her intricate plotting and character-driven suspense are reminiscent of B.A. Paris, Megan Goldin and David Bell, and I suspect that she will find many fans in their readers.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 12, 2021

The Downstairs Neighbor
by Helen Cooper