Stephanie Jones: Book Review - Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes

Publish Date
Thursday, 12 May 2016, 3:19PM
By Stephanie Jones

Meet (again) Joe Goldberg, protagonist and antihero of Caroline Kepnes’ blackly comic second novel, Hidden Bodies, a sequel to You, in which Joe made his debut.His family history is opaque, and he gloms on to people he wants to be around; the process of real befriending requires a skill set he lacks. His is a textbook case of disordered personality; borderline and devoid of empathy, he shoulders aggressively through a chaotic life marked by fleeting relationships with women he either idealizes or devalues. Joe’s self-obsession, and capacity for self-pity, seem limitless. He fears abandonment, while expecting it, and acts impulsively, often sexually, when it happens. He’s also a serial killer.

By the time Hidden Bodies opens (and in events described in You) he’s done away with four people, including an inconvenient ex-girlfriend whose therapist he framed for her murder. His professional front is that of a New York book dealer, and his deviant methodology is working out well for him, if not for the folk who wander into his orbit.

After the messy business of his 20s, Joe has come into his 30s companionably entwined with Amy Adam, a fellow casual grifter who seems on Joe’s level, right down to skipping out on their share of an expensive dinner with two other couples. When the con artist gets conned, and Amy makes off with valuable rare books with which to fund her acting aspirations, Joe pursues her to Los Angeles, where everyone “wants so badly to be watched, noticed”. Being noticed by Joe can be a death sentence. There are far fewer mansions in the hills and showbiz gigs than people competing for them, and Kepnes has an arch view of the cost of anteing up for the game.

The crux of the plot, and the source of the novel’s not always consistent suspense, is Joe’s liaison with Love Quinn, the heiress to a California grocery empire and twin sister of Forty, a show-business dilettante with pronounced substance and gambling problems that leave him vulnerable to Joe’s machinations.

Hidden Bodies is less a psychological thriller, in the vein of The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl, than a dark, uncomfortably funny romp through the mind of a psychopath whose chief motivation to kill is not pleasure but the preservation of his lifestyle and image to others. Anyone who threatens – literally or simply by their existence – to expose him must be dispatched, whether drug-addled celebrity or fame-thirsty cop or tragic, needy neighbour.

Some readers will be unamused by Joe’s profane, contemptuous internal voice. Kepnes is not loath to use what is delicately termed the “c-word”, arguably the most offensive four-letter combination in the English language, to convey Joe’s view of disobedient, inconvenient women. There is no comparable slur for the men he kills.

Outwardly, Joe speaks in a mostly polite manner, in his best interest, allowing the mask of sanity to slip only when he has his prey trapped like a bug under a glass, absorbing the finality of their circumstances. In that moment, they learn who he is; we’ve known all along. Joe is exceedingly unlikeable, as repellent as Bret Easton Ellis’ Patrick Bateman and as meticulous and seductive as ‘Amazing’ Amy Dunne.

Joe is also enthralling, and the ending finds him contained, for the time being. Is he delusional, or is his calm certainty the sign of a chess-master at work? Kepnes’ trickery is to lead the reader on to his side in spite of his unveiled devilry; every other person present is too lost or selfish or careless to root for. Well might she care for her creation, for there is more to be heard of his singular, thrillingly sinister voice.

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