When I first picked up Nina Allan’s The Good Neighbours, I expected a different genre entirely. Murder and the Fae! We’re in for an urban fantasy, right?
The Good Neighbours, however, reads more Tana French than Seanan McGuire, with a laser focus on the shock of violence amidst domesticity. It’s a lush, moody mystery that’s less about the murder itself than the ripples it sets off. Cath is haunted by the murder of her best friend, which happened when the girls were still teenagers. Now an adult, Cath has returned to the Isle of Bute to grapple with her past: her memories of Shirley Craigie, and of Shirley’s father John, on whom the murder was blamed.
LOCAL FAMILY SLAIN IN SHOTGUN CARNAGE. The headline appeared in the local paper the week after the murders, above a photograph of the Craigie house on Westland Road, the gates festooned with police tape, a uniformed officer standing guard outside. The house in the photo was slightly out of focus, already part of the past. By the time the paper was printed the police had named John Craigie as the killer. There were more articles, more photographs, more speculation, but in terms of the story itself, time had moved on.
Cath works at a record store, but her real interest is photography, and she’s made a project of photographing murder houses. Under this premise, she approaches the new tenant of the Craigie house, Alice Rahman. The two become friends as Cath opens up about the murder and draws Alice into her investigation, though their budding closeness is interrupted by Alice’s husband, Saheed, a gratingly macho finance bro who seems like he’d cut strangers off in traffic for fun. Saheed is overprotective of Alice to the point of being controlling, and accuses Cath of being attracted to his wife.
(To be fair, Cath is very attracted to his wife, but Saheed’s level of animosity is unwarranted.)
Those hoping for an action-packed investigative thriller will be disappointed. Cath’s investigation consists mainly of revisiting locations from her adolescence and dipping into reverie and remembrance. Allan’s pace is meditative and gentle, and the narration flows deftly between present and past. Though Cath is dogged in her determination, she’s also tender with her memories, and unfailingly kind to the townspeople and the acquaintances of the Craigies that she interviews.
Cath is a compelling protagonist, and the strongest part of the narrative for me. She moves through the world in a state of fundamental discomfort, never really sure what to make of other people. She is used to being “too much” for others, intense and thoughtful, constantly Monday-morning quarterbacking her own social interactions. Much is made, throughout the story, of Cath’s difficulty in reading cues from other people. Is someone coming on to her or are they simply being friendly? What would be too strange or outré to say out loud? Her curiosity and impulsiveness drive the story, leading her to push limits and do a bit of light breaking and entering in her quest for answers.
It’s sometimes unclear whether memories are the only thing haunting Cath, as she often converses with Shirley in her head. Shirley’s voice tries to hold Cath accountable, calling her out on her attraction to Alice, and shredding the various self-justifications and white lies Cath comes up with to explain her present-day actions taken in the course of her investigation (white lies and a little light B&E, among other things) as they talk through the facts of the murder. Whether this is genuine communication or Cath’s imagination is left to the reader, which calls Cath’s interpretation of information into question. If she’s only imagining Shirley’s voice in her head, how much of what she knows—or thinks she knows—about the Craigie familicide can be considered accurate? Is Cath displacing her opinions and her second thoughts about her own actions onto Shirley as a way to avoid responsibility for them?
What about this one, then? Was your mum having an affair?
Don’t be daft. Mum wasnae like that. If Dad had found out he’d have killed her.
There you are, then. And that doesn’t make sense.
First you say she wasn’t like that, then you say your dad would have killed her if he found out. Which one is it?
The facts of the case grow increasingly complicated; Shirley’s mother Susan is revealed to have engaged in an affair in the last months of her life, while her partner, Angus Livingstone, is the husband of a present-day murder victim whose house Cath photographed at the beginning of the book. However, Cath’s thoughts always return to Shirley’s father, John, blamed for the murder. John Craigie died in a car accident heading away from the ferry terminal in the hours after his family was killed, and Cath seizes on this as evidence for his innocence. If he meant to flee the island, shouldn’t he have been heading towards the ferry?
If John Craigie was not the killer then why had she come all this way in search of him? Cath lay awake in the half light, remembering how Shirley’s father had seemed to her back then, her tense dislike of him. The way he cast a shadow over a room simply by being there, his dumb adherence to routine, the limited and boring way he seemed to see the world. None of these things made him a killer though, or not necessarily, that was the bummer, so why was she here?
Cath remembers John Craigie as a violent, controlling man—but also, according to his daughter, a superstitious one with a firm belief in fairies. It’s here that the speculative elements of the narrative finally come into play. The book features two extended sequences from John’s point of view, manic and jarringly vulgar, that flesh out and contextualize his personality and beliefs, but it’s unclear whether these digressions are a flight of fancy on Cath’s part, or “fact” to which only the reader is made privy. These are a tonal divergence from the rest of the story, at times turning to Stephen King-esque stream-of-consciousness sexual escapades.
Like glass she was, his queen, shrieking no! no! no! when the wind was up, when it whistled between her legs and tickled her quinny. The little footman who drove her, that mean-faced sprite in poofter tights and a harlequin hat. Played the flute like a daemon that one, music that turned into water as if the wee bastard were actually playing rain. Johnny knew how daft that sounded but there it was. A sound to turn your mind to gloop if ye listened too much on it.
The title of the book and its frequent dips into folklore led me to believe that it would commit more firmly to its speculative elements. However, The Good Neighbours suffers from what a friend of mine once summed up as “an insufficiently haunted worldview.” With every development I expected the story to turn and embrace its Fae tendency more fully: to expose Susan Craigie as a changeling (her personality shifts are instead due to the domestic abuse she suffers from her husband, and her subsequent affair), or to reveal that Angus Livingstone was a faerie and had caused not only Susan’s death but also that of John’s sister Denise, a minor character and formative trauma in John’s part of the narrative. But the story ultimately resolves in a kind of stony materialism utterly alien to the animist universe I inhabit. Although a shudder runs down Cath’s spine as she gazes out over Loch Fad, the story itself takes a hardline materialist stance: belief in faeries is an expression of Mr Craigie’s mental illness, and there is a mundane explanation for everything. To me, the idea that no supernatural forces operate in the world is the point that requires the most suspension of disbelief.