James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a psychological thriller with the same eerie flavor as Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. With astute observations of those around him, Lasdun’s unreliable narrator is as literate as he is lethal and downright creepy.
When Matthew, an out of work chef, accepts an invitation from his wealthy cousin Charlie, a recently dismissed hedge fund manager, to spend the summer at his luxurious mountainside retreat, their cohabitation seems relatively peaceful at first. Matthew occupies the guest house and cooks the meals, while Charlie and his wife, Chloe, while away the days swimming, reading, and practicing yoga. Their conversations are friendly yet reserved, with an underlying vein of Matthew’s unrequited love for his cousin’s wife and his jealousy of Charlie’s success. Charlie is overbearing and entitled (he has a million and a half dollars in cash in his home safe), while he vacillates between being the gracious savior of Matthew’s moneyless circumstances and acting as the overlord expecting undue fealty for his benevolence.
As the story slowly unveils secrets in the characters’ past, Lasdun’s descriptions of Matthew’s gourmet meals are mouth-watering, with exquisite attention to detail. This detail continues with Chloe’s project of photographing county mailboxes and creating gardens around the house, lulling the reader into thinking nothing bad will happen after all. Matthew’s private rants about his bad luck growing up without a father who disappeared after making bad investments, his private schooling abruptly interrupted by being caught dealing drugs, and his unsuccessful forays into the restaurant business, all seem innocuous – the quiet despair of a depressed person, not the festering revenge of a psychopath.
When Matthew decides to secretly follow Chloe on one of her photographing expeditions, and discovers she is having a secret affair with another man, the narrative quickly turns into a Hitchcockian drama. To reveal too much would spoil the plot; Lasdun uses clever twists and red herrings to draw the reader into the maze of deception, revealing more past history as possible motives for the characters’ actions. The denouement is unexpected – I backtracked to reread pages, thinking I must have missed something because the sudden change in the action took me by surprise – not at all what I had been led to expect. The ending is a little rattling, but the murderer (did I tell you there’s a murder?) is caught.
Lasdun includes a few phrases worth remembering. One easy to apply to the next person you meet who is pretentiously cheerful –
…”a hypocrite in whom dissembling graciousness had become habit…”
I read the book from the library, but I couldn’t help thinking how well the book would play on Audible with Matthew’s British accent. The beginning is a little slow, but once the action starts, it would be hard to fall asleep listening.