Last year British author Louise Candlish made her American debut with “Our House,” a domestic thriller about a woman whose life spirals after she finds strangers taking over her London townhouse. Now Candlish returns with a mordant tale called “Those People.” She could well have titled it “Our Houses” since the plot finds several homes and their owners threatened by obnoxious newcomers.
The offending two are Darren Booth and his girlfriend, Jodie. They’ve moved into a semi-detached home that Darren inherited in Lowland Way, an upscale suburb of London. A neighbor complains that the couple is turning their property into “a disaster zone.” There’s “a mountain of bricks and rubble,” along with a van and two cars, one of them jacked up and blocking the sidewalk. The sounds coming from inside the house of blaring rock music and a blasting drill jar everyone on the street.
Darren and Jodie appear to be the titular “those people,” the ones everyone on the block point to angrily. But Candlish complicates things: It’s hard to tell who are the victims and who are the perpetrators. “Those people” could just as well be “these people.”
Ralph and Naomi Morgan, for example, use the pretense of a “meet and greet” to ask Darren if he plans to sell the cars on his property, suspecting – hoping, really – he lacks the required permit. Darren, “unsettlingly agile” with “a bulging forehead and a flat boxer’s nose” warns Darren to keep his “nose out.”
The Morgans and their neighbors keep their noses in. They spread gossip about Darren and Jodie: “They’re big binge drinkers.” “They like to party.” “Wouldn’t be surprised if he was a pedo…”
Fueled by fears the squalor will send property values plummeting (a B&B across from Darren has already shuttered), the neighbors resort to violence against Darren and Jodie. Ant, who, with his wife Em, shares the Booth’s semi-detached property, pitches a terra-cotta pot onto the Booth’s yard.
Then one night a scaffold Darren had erected over the front of his house collapses and kills one of the characters. Did someone on the street sabotage the structure?
Police investigate the accident, as the second half of “Those People” morphs into a standard issue procedural. It brings surprising twists, but it’s overlong, slowly paced and overshadowed by the author’s sharply etched group portrait of “those people.”
Moving from house to house, Candlish exposes the smug, hypocritical, selfish attitudes of their owners. The folks along Lowland Way are about as nasty, as hypocritical and, eventually, as violent as the predatory villagers in Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” An ironic and poignant coda suggests at least one person on the street possesses a few grams of humanity. Otherwise, Lowland Way – as its name suggests – is a dispiriting place.
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