Paula Hawkins has a thing for nice houses. The premise of her debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, had the kind of real-world immediacy that left you in no doubt about how the author dreamed it up. What if, while riding an 8am train crawling into London, peering into the gardens and windows of expensive Victorian homes, you saw something suspicious? You could call it Rear Window meets 4.50 from Paddington, but there was no noirish glamour to this story. The plot was strewn with the familiar details of London’s commuter belt – a 1960s new town with a JD Sports, a Wheatsheaf and a big Tesco – and it could surprise no one that Hawkins, formerly a journalist on the Times, landed on it while travelling to work, “staring” into the houses she passed.
Perhaps it’s this instantly accessible premise that made the book such a phenomenon. The Girl on the Train spent 20 weeks at the top of the UK books chart, a record that is yet to be broken, and sold more than 20 million copies worldwide in 2015, the year of its publication. The novel was frequently described as “the next Gone Girl”, the thriller by Gillian Flynn (another journalist-turned-bestselling-crime-writer) that dominated charts in 2012. The two books share unreliable female narrators, suburban settings and a fascination with the idea that a smiling serial killer might be hiding in plain sight – perhaps even within your own marriage. Both were turned into major blockbuster films (Flynn was up for an Oscar for her Gone Girl screenplay alongside lead actress Rosamund Pike in 2015; The Girl on the Train had another British actress, Emily Blunt, in the title role). “Women are writing the best crime novels,” declared a 2016 article in the Atlantic, citing Flynn and Hawkins as the key examples, alongside Megan Abbott, Sophie Hannah and Tana French. But not everyone saw the books as a win for feminism: in the London Review of Books, Jacqueline Rose called both “deeply repellent”, asking “why such hatred of women would be so popular”.
There have been many attempts to ape the success of these two novels: one could draw a spiderweb of interlocking books and films about infidelity, domestic violence, gaslighting and murder lurking in the seemingly perfect lives of aspirational women. Flynn adapted her earlier novel Sharp Objects for a popular HBO series starring Amy Adams. Netflix recently released a film of The Woman in the Window (by Daniel Mallory, under the “gender-neutral” name AJ Finn), in which an agoraphobic woman, also played by Amy Adams, witnesses a murder in the house opposite. As well as directing Sharp Objects, Jean-Marc Vallée took Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies to the small screen.
Hawkins is still being sold as Britain’s answer to Gillian Flynn (her new novel, A Slow Fire Burning, has a similar cover design to Flynn’s books; Pike reads the audiobook). But while Gone Girl thrilled readers with a sensational plot full of pulpy twists and psychopathic characters, the violence of The Girl on the Train was disturbingly ordinary. This was not “gritty realism” (so often a synonym for “horrified middle class fantasies of the working classes”) – instead, it felt bleak, quotidian, familiarly British. Hawkins made her novel believable through its acutely observed setting, which the film, perhaps chasing the American appeal of Gone Girl, lost when it moved the story to New York.
The central image of The Girl on the Train was of a woman staring through the windows of a beautiful period property, pining after the kind of plush married life she had before she became a divorced, unemployed alcoholic living in a flat-share. A Slow Fire Burning is similarly characterised by longing for the domestic. It is set in the streets of north London that surround Regent’s Canal: the well-off in warm Victorian terraces; others looking on from boats below or tower blocks above. (Again, it feels obvious that Hawkins, as she admits, found her premise while “peering into people’s houseboats”.) Characters peek through windows or doors left ajar, jealously snooping around each other’s homes. So much crime fiction is described as voyeuristic, but Hawkins’s is literally, bloodlessly so: written from the outside looking in – covetously, if not sexually.
Laura is a 25-year-old woman who lives alone in a council flat high above Spa Fields in Clerkenwell and works at a launderette. Often in trouble, she insists to police that she is a “vulnerable adult”: when she was 11, she was hit by a car, and left with a smashed skull and personality changes (“disinhibition”). Her best friend is an elderly widow, Irene, for whom she runs errands, in return for the odd fiver. Irene lives in a Victorian terrace nearby, and was close to her neighbour Angela, a single mum with an alcohol addiction. But Angela has died in a drink-related incident, and her son, Daniel, has moved to a “dirty” houseboat. Angela was long estranged from her sister Carla: she was looking after Carla’s toddler when he died in yet another terrible accident.
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Carla and her husband Theo, a famous crime novelist, split after their son died and now live in separate grand houses near the canal. Theo is being hounded by a woman named Miriam, who furiously believes he has plagiarised her memoir. She too lives on a (nicer) houseboat: Daniel has moved on to a boat next to hers. Laura and Daniel meet through Irene and have sex. The next day, Daniel is found dead on his boat, his throat cut. Laura, who was seen running from the scene covered in blood, is the prime suspect.
Caught up in this tangle of characters, the plot is less paranoid, less panic-inducing and less compelling than The Girl on the Train. In the first few pages, Hawkins openly mocks the typical lurid prose of crime fiction. She begins with a long italicised section – “blood-sodden, the girl staggers into the black” – that ends with Irene “snapping the book shut”, exclaiming, “What utter drivel!” (We later learn that this is Theo’s novel.) Hawkins’s book is not about a woman fleeing a killer, and we are abruptly returned to her world: dingy carpets and bad smells set against homely spaces envied by all. But this time, it feels like less is at stake.
The quote on the back of A Slow Fire Burning comes from Miriam, who thinks: “These people who think that they have all the power, who think that we have none, we could prove them wrong.” But Hawkins’s characters are not driven by power: they are motivated by more conventional pleasures. Miriam’s internal monologue ends: “We may not live in elegant homes, we might not have expensive haircuts and foreign holidays and good art on the walls, but that doesn’t make us nothing.” A middle-class existence, she thinks bitterly, is what a “good” life is. This, she believes, is the life she deserves.
Carla keeps seeing her ex, in part because he lives in their once-idyllic marital home: a wisteria-clad building with a “gem of a London garden” that gives Miriam, when she visits, “an immense sense of contentment”. Angela and Daniel romanticise their first house so that in memory it is “more castle than Victorian square”. To Laura, Irene’s snug home is “heaven”.
Hawkins’s characters aspire to a distinctly British bourgeois ideal, one that seems, in the bloody world of crime, almost quaint. Only occasionally do their motives go beyond this cosy sphere – if they do, you’ve probably spotted the twisted mind of a killer. These are people who want lives of beauty, comfort and taste. Above all, they want a nice house.
A Slow Fire Burning
Doubleday, £20, 297pp
This article appears in the 22 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Great Power Play