“What if your college sweetheart, the girl of your dreams, suddenly disappeared? Twenty years later she’s back, she’s in trouble and she says you are the only one who can help her…”
That’s the blurb from the back cover of Peter Swanson’s The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and I will openly admit that it didn’t necessarily grab me by the throat. After all, years of consuming books, movies and videogames have probably desensitised me to most blurbs. Nevertheless, that same veteran imagination had been pleasantly surprised by the excellent The Kind Worth Killing so I had already decided to work through the rest of Swanson’s back catalogue, beginning here.
Straight out of the gates, I will say that I didn’t think this book was quite as enthralling as The Kind Worth Killing but that’s saying a lot when that book was sooooo good. This one is still a real page-turner. George Foss is just your average guy living a predictable, unexciting life; a fact that he is very much aware of and has come to terms with. Routine is turned on its head however when he chances upon his old college flame, Liana Decter. What should be a pleasant encounter is thrown into question however because Liana had pulled a vanishing act twenty years ago after involving George in a tangled web of deceit that concluded with George discovering that his girlfriend had likely killed on more than one occasion. George should stay the hell away from Liana – this he knows – but she represents a time in George’s life when he felt alive and the future hadn’t seemed so mundane. Not to mention the fact that Liana is incredibly beautiful and bewitching or that George has been searching for her on and off ever since, having never really gotten over what they’d had.
Against better judgment, George makes contact with Liana and finds himself once again embroiled in a dangerous, cryptic game of Liana’s doing. George is torn between preserving his own life – by rejecting Liana and the trouble she brings – and helping her, fuelled by the naive hope that she might just stick around this time. George has always been hurt, emotionally and physically, by Liana and her accompanying drama but at the same time, he finds himself powerless to refuse her. She is a sweet poison that he can’t fully expel from his life and part of him doesn’t want to.
“While she paid the check, Liana walked past again. This time George could stare at her retreating figure, that familiar walk. She had grown into her body too. George thought she’d been his ideal in college, but if anything she looked better now: long tapering legs and exaggerated curves, the kind of body that only genetics, not exercise, will ever get you. The backs of her arms were pale as milk”
The book hooks the reader by keeping them guessing and providing endless questions. What did Liana do in the past that was so bad? Why has she used multiple aliases throughout her life? What happened to her relationship with George? Most importantly, what does she truly want this time? Is she all she seems? The answers are drip-fed as the book alternates between past and present, neither timeline giving everything up until the parallel stories begin to explain one another and current events make greater sense in light of revelations from the past. I really enjoyed this structure and couldn’t put the book down as I simply had to find out what happened next. The opening prologue is pretty clever too because it actually forms part of the book’s finale (and you will see a good chunk of it repeated there to bring the book full-circle). At the outset however, it makes little sense other than acting as one of several hooks to snag a reader.
As with The Kind Worth Killing, Swanson shows his affection for the femme fatale. Liana is beautiful, slippery and masterfully manipulative. She gets what she wants and is rarely as she seems. Whenever George thinks he has her figured out or second-guessed, she surprises him again…and again and again. She is aware of her power over him but is she consciously abusing that power without harbouring any sort of romantic feelings towards George? Was what they had in college real? Does she love George at all in spite of how she moves him about like a chess piece?
I personally love the femme fatale archtype whether it’s calculating, manipulative women like Liana Decter, cold wet-work experts or mentally shaky psychopaths. I gave The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and Swanson extra points for another fascinating, mystery-shrouded female that you would want to ward off while you lusted after them.
“There was still some part of George that wanted to believe that Liana was innocent, that she was not behind the robbery and the murder. He wanted to believe this not because he thought she wasn’t capable of such crimes, but because he hoped she wasn’t capable of using him for those purposes. Just as George had always stayed a little bit in love with Liana, he hoped that she had always stayed a little bit in love with him”
My only criticism of the book is that the ending doesn’t quite live up to the twisty nature of the book as a whole. It feels as if the book blows its load a little too prematurely; not so early as to spoil the fun but a little sooner than I would have liked. The puzzle pieces are mostly all in place at a little over three-quarters distance and after a dramatic endgame for the main characters, the final explanations are delivered in a fairly flat fashion that somehow makes the unpredictable events seem obvious and no longer so wild. The conclusion also appears to set up for a potential sequel but I’m not convinced that a follow-up would work or is at all necessary for that matter.
That said however, I did enjoy The Girl With A Clock For A Heart and it certainly sustained my interest in Peter Swanson’s books. If you enjoy thrillers that go for a modern day noir feel with relatable characters, constant suspense and a sexy femme fatale then you will be well-served here. This was an addictive read that was difficult for me to put down and that’s usually all I need to recommend a book.