Nothing quite piqued the zeitgeist in the 2010s than the lovable serial killer. Whether it’s down to obsession, love, or plain old parental issues, one couldn’t throw a stone without hitting at least three TV shows trying to give murderers a sympathetic portrayal, whether they be your assassins (Killing Eve, Barry), your ritualistic psychopaths (Hannibal, You), or your garden variety killers who just couldn’t resist the urge (Dexter, The Fall, Bates Motel) to slay. It’s no wonder then that books have followed this trend, including Joanna Wallace’s debut You’d Look Better as a Ghost.
You’d Look Better as a Ghost follows Claire, a nondescript thirtysomething who, unbeknownst to everyone save her recently-departed father, is a serial killer, seemingly unable to resist the pull of bumping off those that cross her path and annoy her. One of these unlucky breed is a gallery employee who unintentionally ruins her chances at artistic glory, and soon Claire finds herself following the employee into a dark conspiracy that threatens to undo the carefully maintained web of lies that keeps Claire free to kill.
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At the heart of the novel lies Wallace’s most intriguing construction – Claire herself, a black hole of a person who can’t help but suck in those who drift too close, crushing them to nothing because of her inherent nature. Claire begins the novel as mordant and adrift following the recent passing of her father, unafraid to dispatch anyone who comes remotely close to annoying her, whether that’s peeling the skin off an irritating young mother or leaving the heads of her victims floating in her fish tank. Wallace takes the time to explore Claire outside of her acts of violence, giving her nuance and shading, allowing her moments of grace and lightness, despite the darkness at the core of her being.
Other characters are far more ancillary in You’d Look Better as a Ghost; even when the narrative facilitates to third-person childhood flashbacks, there’s a distance between Claire and the rest of the people in her orbit that the reader isn’t allowed access or interiority to, for good and bad alike. Still, Claire is nothing if not an eminently readable presence, simultaneously empathetic in her moments of vulnerability and amorally malignant; a whirlpool who doesn’t really care who she consumes in her wake.
The novel’s first half is a little more formless, following Claire as she jumps from potential victim to potential victim, before Wallace settles into the rhythm of her work, providing a central mystery for Claire and the reader to work out, and giving the novel’s second – and better – half an engaging speed, coupled with flashbacks that illustrate Claire’s turbulent childhood and the seeds for her dark path. She’s certainly a villain, barely an anti-hero if one were to be generous, and nonetheless entertaining as she careens down a road of destruction and discovery, but there are moments of levity and distinction, particularly when Claire expresses rare moments of empathy and compassion, saving her from being a cardboard cut-out of a serial killer archetype.
With a tone hovering around Nighty Night‘s shadow-dark camp, with a knife-slick edge, and certainly not for every reader, You’d Look Better as a Ghost is a bitterly black comedy that mines its premise for chilling deaths and brutal laughs, in what is an assured and confident, if imperfect, debut that other writers would kill to achieve.
You’d Look Better as a Ghost is out on 21st September from Viper Books.