Photos: Riverboat deck (Luis Dafos/Getty); River bus (Nick Ansell/PA Images/Getty)
The Other Passenger
British bestselling author Louise Candlish takes a Thames River Bus to murky depths in her latest thriller, "The Other Passenger" / BY Shinan Govani / July 16th, 2021
Louise Candlish’s sunny chime of a voice is a foil to the chilly novels that she conjures. “It is about the surface, and what is beyond the surface,” she says on the phone from the U.K., riffing on The Other Passenger. Her new book falls into the category of wicked psychological suspense, which the Brits do exceptionally well – British women, in particular, like Ruth Ware and Lisa Jewell. A sucker for these myself, Candlish was new to me. After devouring her latest – one that churns like the Thames ferry that propels its plot – she forever has a place on my permanent playlist. Bring on the “unlikeable” characters!
With London itself a main character, it reels the reader in. The book’s narrator, Jamie, deep into middle age, travels to work daily on the Thames River Bus. There is a cinematic feel – in the book and in real life – as it drifts down the city’s main artery and landmarks go by in a blur.
One morning, as Jamie disembarks at Waterloo, he’s met by the police. They question him about his younger chum, Kit, a fellow passenger. It’s just after Christmas, and Jamie was the last person to see him on the ferry home the eve before Christmas Eve. What gives? And what follows? That would be a time-shifting tale of avarice, contempt and sexual intrigue, with the two women in their lives in the mix, too. The clash of generations is an undertow in the story: How this seemingly charmed Gen-X couple are enraptured and then dubiously entwined with the hungry millennial duo.
Feeding off film noir – specks of which one definitely sees in The Other Passenger – the novel bears a resemblance to that classic, Double Indemnity, not to mention Hitchcock fare like Strangers on a Train, as other reviewers have suggested. So, was that the impetus? “I wanted to do a commuter story. That is where it started,” Candlish says. “But not a train!”
We already have that 1951 Hitchcock film (based on a famous Patricia Highsmith novel), but also British author Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, the 2015 novel that was made into a movie. Riding the quintessentially London ferry along the Thames one day – something she had not done for years – Candlish had her answer. “I had been sitting in my seat for about 10 seconds when I thought – oh my god, this is it.”
And what an epiphany it was, with the riverboat eventually becoming the heart of the novel, not to mention the churning Thames beneath it. It engenders some of the book’s most haunting passages. “The season was turning, daylight hours shrunken and precious, and the spokes of the Eye glowed neon against the darkening sky, delicate as harp strings.” It also functions as a metaphor for the psyche of the characters. Those murky depths. Bends and curves.
As for her research into the Thames, Candlish – who excels in setting moods – had much to say. “I read a lot about disasters on the Thames. I remembered firsthand the Marchioness disaster, which is mentioned briefly in the book [a deadly collision between two vessels on the river in 1989]. The river can be beautiful but deadly, against the backdrop of some of the beautiful, glamorous buildings around it. The shiny financial district, for one, and its toxic people – some of them.”
“Those deadly currents. The thick ridges,” she says about the river that defines the British metropolis, but is so visible it can almost be inconspicuous. “There are traces of old gallows, if you look, where they used to hang people. When we are in lockdown here [during the pandemic], all traffic on Thames was suspended. I would go for walks, and it was a completely different atmosphere. It looks very serene, but that is very deceptive too.”
She tells me about Freddie, the seal that was rescued by a fisherman in February and released, only to travel to London and hang out near the Hammersmith Bridge. It became a big media story, but Freddie was eventually mauled by a dog and put down after the attack.
After publishing the bestselling thriller, Our House in 2018, Candlish’s writing has been described as “property noir,” and she gives us some of that again, for sure. Jamie, and his partner, Claire, welcome their younger friends, Kit and Melia, into the picture-perfect Georgian house Claire inherited – a symbol of the clash between the generations. The younger couple has been squeezed out of the housing market, and the other seems to take their economic status for granted in the city where, as one character mentions, the average price of a London house in 1986 was 56,000 pounds (it’s now more than 500,000). When I mention this to Candlish, she said, “Well that’s all you need to know isn’t it?”
Addressing that subject, and how she views the clash herself as a Gen-Xer, she says she feels more compassion for Kit and Melia, even though they are monstrous characters. “The complacency of Jamie and Claire I find really distasteful. I wanted to contrast the two generations. With Gen-Xers, we are Thatcher’s children – beneficiaries of so-called meritocracy. Claire really thinks she has everything because she’s … talented. Not really willing to acknowledge her good fortune. The other two, though, are the ideal of an entitled younger generation – exaggerated, of course. They are both at fault. Both lack self-perspective.”
Turning to the inevitable subject of “likeable” versus “unlikeable” characters in fiction, the inky-dark terrain that Candlish travels, I could hear her shrugging over the line. “I am always asked about my dislikeable characters. I don’t always see it.”
It’s ultimately a matter of perspective, isn’t it? When I quote Oscar Wilde to her – “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future” – she exclaims, “I love that!” She agrees it is reasonable to avoid unsavoury people in your life, but you can still be riveted by them in books or film or TV (everything from Shakespeare to Succession, after all!)
“I think the day I gave up going through my manuscripts trying to make my characters more likeable is the day I became a more successful writer,” she says.
With The Other Passenger already a sensation across the pond, where it was published last year, a TV series in production based on Our House, and another novel already in the chute (slated to come out this year), it looks like success has definitely found her.
The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish will be released in North America on July 20.