What’s not to like about an ultra-high-tech home? Doors lock and unlock at a tap of a smartphone app; the shower starts when you step inside, and runs at your preferred temperature; the lighting glows and dims according to your circadian rhythms. It’s a cocoon, utterly secure and uncontaminated by street noise. The fly in the ointment, as J P Delaney’s The Girl Before tells it, is that the home, located at One Folgate Street in central London, belongs to a man labelled a “narcissistic sociopath” by the therapist of a former resident.
Edward Monkford doesn’t merely own this ode to minimalism – he designed and built it. The walls, floors, and unrailed staircase are hewn from the same stone. There are no doors or cupboards, power sockets, light fixtures or switches. It’s so fuel-efficient that it returns power to the national grid, and architecture students analyze it.
Edward is very particular about its residents, and the lease agreement includes 200 specific rules. Nothing may be altered or added – no carpets, pictures, pot plants, books, cushions, knick-knacks, not even coasters or placemats – and not even clothes can be left lying around. Regular inspections, and reports by the house’s specialist cleaners, record any breaches. Tenant applications are approved only after psychometric testing and personal interview with Edward. “It’s not a straightforward landlord-tenant agreement,” an agent carefully understates.
As it happens, the two women who live in the house, Emma (in the past) and Jane (in the present) are of a similar physical type, and both resemble Edward’s late wife, who was killed, with their child, in an on-site accident during the construction of One Folgate Street. Both are buried, with the appropriate permissions, in the foundations of the home.
Any sensible person would run a mile, but then there’d be no book. Edward woos the women, one after the other, using classic emotionally-distant-but-rich-man techniques: high-end sushi dinners, jewels, expensive dresses in just the right size. There are museum visits and lectures on art appreciation, as if he were taking tips from Thomas Crown. When items aren’t put away, he offers a gentle correction. Obsessive and peculiar, with a well-honed MO, to any right-thinking woman Edward would appear as he is: a perfectionist pill with superior design skills and a terminal case of OCD. On top of it all, he just might be dangerous as well as hyper-controlling, and as Jane learns more about what happened to Emma, the woman before, she has reason to doubt her landlord-turned-boyfriend.
As a psychological thriller, The Girl Before pushes the boundaries of plausibility and proffers a villain of comic-book mask-peeling aha! preposterousness, but alongside the plot run well-handled themes. Both women have endured trauma: Emma was held at knifepoint in her former home, prompting her and boyfriend Simon to seek a new one, and Jane is forced to leave her more expensive flat when she reorders her life following the stillbirth of her daughter. This form of parental bereavement, so little canvassed in popular culture, is described with great delicacy.
Though the book has been published under a pseudonym, online rumours have it that the author is Tony Strong, an established bestselling author. What’s not in doubt is that The Girl Before is destined for adaptation, having been acquired by Universal, with Ron Howard attached to direct. The silver screen will surely do justice to that house, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.