In her latest thriller, “What We Did,” best-selling British author Christobel Kent seizes the old rule of Chekhov’s gun and runs with it. As every aspiring playwright knows, Chekhov famously opined that: “If in Act One you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” That’s too sluggish a suspense timeline for Kent.
In Chapter 3 of “What We Did,” Kent’s heroine, Bridget Webster, stows a heavy log on a rickety storage room shelf of the dress shop she owns. (The log was the centerpiece of an autumnal window display.) We readers — who think we know our Chekhov — smugly settle in, anticipating a long wait for the climactic ending when that sinister log will come tumbling down. But Kent speedily dispenses with this mossy deus ex machina: A few scant chapters later, that log rolls off the shelf to bash its deserving victim. Kent wants to school her readers in the same lesson her main characters here must learn: Namely, the deadliest dangers don’t announce their presence so boldly; instead, they’re lurking in plain sight, beneath cultured voices and friendly computer texts.
Like many a heroine of the classic woman-in-trouble tale, Bridget has a secret that gnaws at her. Many years ago, when she was a teenager, she was repeatedly sexually abused by her music teacher, a monster named Anthony Carmichael. Ashamed and scared, Bridget hid the abuse from her widowed mother; subsequently, she struggled with anorexia and depression. Now middle-aged, Bridget is married to Matt (an IT technician at a nearby undistinguished university) and is mother to their teenage son, Finn. She also owns that aforementioned sedate dress shop in a historic section of the English town they live in. Life is happy enough, especially because, as Bridget reflects:
“Matt had never asked. It was why they were happy. Never asked why there were things she couldn’t do, or listen to, or eat; he treated her like she was normal, and in turn she did the same for him. Mr. and Mrs. Normal: she knew it was why plenty of her customers came in, they could be sure there’d be no hysterics, no loud music, no clothes with bits flapping or unexpected holes. There’d be the magazine perfectly centered on the mirrored cube, and the bright soft colors.”
Readers learn about Bridget’s past in carefully scattered flashbacks because in the opening scene of this novel, the unthinkable happens. One dark November afternoon when the dress shop is empty, the door opens and a man and a pretty young girl (perhaps his granddaughter?) enter. The girl tells Bridget she’s looking for a special dress for her music recital. Somewhat creepily, she’s accompanied by her teacher, none other than an aged Anthony Carmichael. It turns out he’s been appointed a visiting fellow in the music department of the same university where Matt works.
Now that he’s found Bridget (it’s ambiguous whether that first encounter was by design or happenstance), Carmichael begins stalking her, driving by the Webster home and returning to the dress shop when it’s empty to corner her. That’s when Bridget, no longer a terrified teenager, finishes what fate (and a shaky storage shelf) began and goes all Paul Bunyan on Carmichael, wielding that heavy fallen log as a weapon.
This violent reckoning takes place in the opening chapters of “What We Did.” The focus of this engrossing psychological thriller is on the aftermath, in which Bridget desperately tries to put the lid back on her old quiet life (and dispose of Carmichael’s cumbersome corpse in an era of ubiquitous CCTV cameras), all the while selling fancy frocks, whipping up family dinners, and fending off a dogged female investigative reporter who’s harbored suspicions about Carmichael for years.
“What We Did” can be thought of as an atmospheric tale of macabre multitasking. Kent serves up a twisting and complex plot, but the novel’s chief appeal lies in the tense character of Bridget, who learns that a life lived under the radar can’t protect her from the creepy-crawly things that live there, too.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Christobel Kent
FSG/Sarah Crichton. 306pp. $27