Who are literature’s most lethal women? There are many candidates, of course — male writers keep churning them out — but we might start with Shakespeare’s Goneril and Regan, those heartless sisters in “King Lear.” Or we could leap forward to Mildred, the girlfriend from hell in Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage.” In the world of crime fiction, we might shudder at the thought of Phyllis Nirdlinger, the determined husband-killer in James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” or more recently, Desiree Stone, the rich, gorgeous and homicidal femme fatale in Dennis Lehane’s “Sacred.”
And here’s a new contender: Liana Decter, who causes endless heartbreak and occasional death in Peter Swanson’s compulsively readable first novel, “The Girl with a Clock for a Heart.” Liana’s primary victim is George Foss, a well-meaning fellow who falls in love with her at age 18 and still can’t resist her 20 years later, even after she has not only broken his heart but framed him for multiple crimes.
George meets the gorgeous Liana when they’re freshmen at a small college in Connecticut. Swanson paints a sweet picture of the uncertainties of one’s freshman year and of the way the magic of romance can transform it into paradise. When the young couple make love, it’s George’s first time, and Liana says it’s hers, too, although that, like the name she’s using, is just one of her lies.
Near the end of their first semester, after Liana’s roommate goes home, they spend a week mostly in bed. “The intensity of that week bordered on an almost unbearable sadness for George. He’d read enough books to know that youthful love comes only once, and he never wanted it to end or go away.”
Alas, it’s never that good again. Each goes home for the Christmas holidays, Liana to a grubby little Florida town called Sweetgum. Then George receives the devastating news that Liana is dead. He takes a bus to Florida and learns that someone is dead but she’s not the girl he loves. He also learns Liana had grown up amid squalor and violence in a world far different from his own comfortable home back east. A drunken father with big gambling debts is only part of the problem. Soon, Liana is suspected of two murders and skips town. George returns to school, still in love.
Twenty years later, he’s the business manager of a literary magazine in Boston. He never married and is still haunted by Liana. Abruptly, she appears and pleads for help. She’s stolen half-a-million dollars in cash and is being pursued by killers. She says she wants to return the money but is afraid to take it herself. Will George make the delivery for her? The poor lovesick fool says yes, and soon more people are dying, the money is missing, and he’s suspected of murder.
Swanson tells his story in chapters that alternate between past and present. Each story has its own suspense, and each carries us deeper into George’s obsession with Liana and her bottomless deceit.
There are other characters — George’s on-and-off girlfriend in Boston, the rich old man Liana has robbed, and some thugs who keep beating George up — but ultimately this is the story of a love affair gone spectacularly bad.
Near the end, George reflects on what he’s learned: “It was a gift, a specialty, a talent. She could become someone else, and she could then just as easily kill what she became, taking out whoever happened to be in the way. And if transformation was her special talent, then George knew what had attracted Liana to him was that he was someone who would never transform. He would always be the same.”
For all the book’s delights, I had a problem with its ending, when someone escapes from a situation that seems to offer no possibility of escape. But by then I was willing to give Swanson the benefit of the doubt. This is a highly original story, well told, that should be a contender for crime fiction’s best first novel of 2014.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
THE GIRL WITH A CLOCK FOR A HEART
By Peter Swanson
Morrow. 292 pp. $25.99