Reviewed by Erin Britton
Did karma finally catch up to Kate O’Brien’s gaslighting ex-husband or did someone lend a helping hand?
Disturbing and disorientating in equal measures, Eleanor Kelley’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a twisting psychological thriller in which fractured family relationships and deep-rooted personal demons have the potential to upend flawed main character Kate O’Brien’s fragile reality.
As the confusions, lies, and double-crosses mount up, the truth behind Kate’s situation proves to be just as elusive as in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, and it all makes for an action-packed and unsettling read.
Almost three years after her mother Betty’s death, Kate O’Brien and best friend Molly are traveling to Ireland to spread some of her ashes off the Dingle coast. They’re also intending to make something of a road trip of it, visiting many of the places, sights, and pubs that Kate and various family members frequented on previous visits and sending home “Betty-in-a-box pictures” of her mother’s temporary urn in such locations. While the melancholic nature of their purpose is counterbalanced by the hilarity associated with two best friends having fun in a foreign country, the pair experience a number of odd occurrences during their trip that lend an air of unease to the proceedings.
What’s more, an unfortunate turn of events sees them mislay Betty’s ashes, meaning that Kate has to rely on an unknown priest to scatter them on the River Liffey rather than taking the ashes to the intended resting place. This cements the slowly building perception that Kate is perhaps not the most reliable of characters, which it turns out is something she has been struggling with since her divorce from Harry Johnson: “Kate suspected Harry had gaslighted her with a series of strange events and odd happenstances. From hang-up calls in the middle of the night, to doors unlocked in the morning when she’d locked them in the evening, to her wedding album suddenly appearing in her book case, Kate began to doubt her own sanity.”
In fact, given such strange events, uncertain recollections, and disputed circumstances, it is constantly questionable whether Kate is really seeing and telling the truth, even to herself. Still, it seems that her former husband did quite the number on her, including alienating her from her children and many former friends. Despite this, it’s not clear how much of her misfortune is down to Harry and how much to her own volatile personality, although it’s undeniable that she bears considerable animosity toward him. Kate herself notes that the divorce “took a lot out of me. It was bad enough I was thrown aside as a wife, but being thrown aside by my kids made it worse. I hate Harry for turning the kids against me, and not a day goes by that I don’t want to get even.”
The fact that Kate makes her hatred of Harry and desire for revenge plain proves particularly problematic when she and Molly return from Ireland and begin to hear rumors that Harry died suddenly while in rehab recovering from a stroke. Kate’s children still aren’t speaking to her and Harry’s friends and family seem strangely reticent to discuss his death, which makes Kate suspicious that there might be something off about the situation. After all, “Harry rarely did anything without great fanfare and his going to the dry-cleaning store in the sky on the QT was unimaginable.” As Kate attempts to find out how Harry died, a series of sightings of her former husband suggest that he may not really be dead. But why would Harry fake his death? What reason could friends and family have to cover for him? And how does Kate’s strange and strangely familiar new acquaintance Ettie fit into it all?
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an intriguing thriller rendered even more complex by the fact that very few of the characters seem to be truly aware, honest, and above board. Kate herself is a polarizing character; she remains sympathetic throughout but it would be difficult to say that she is a likable person. Her volatile personality, quick temper, and apparent tendency to drink too much all mean that her behavior and motivation indicate that she’s holding something back, never quite being fully truthful in terms of her and Harry’s relationship, whether during their marriage or after their divorce.
Yet, it is undeniable that people are keeping information from her and doing their best to thwart her investigation into Harry’s apparent death. From the couple’s children, to Harry’s brother and sister-in-law, to his best friend George and even the police, it seems as if those in the know are doing their best to hush things up at the same time as making the death appear mysterious. While such behavior does establish Kate as something of an outsider in her own life and draw some sympathy toward her, it’s not really clear why all these individuals would independently decide to make things as difficult as possible.
Moreover, Kate’s few allies, particularly her sister Sue and best friend Molly, also behave slightly strangely with regard to Harry’s death and Kate’s subsequent suspicions. Sue is actually the person who informs Kate about his passing, having heard about it from an old neighbor, but she doesn’t seek out or provide any details, nor does she seem to take seriously Kate’s concerns about other characters gaslighting her or setting her up.
In true The Lady Vanishes style, several characters—such as Kate’s neighbor Elsa and some of the staff at the Holy Trinity assisted living facility—become aware of information that would help Kate’s cause but choose, for reasons known only to themselves, to keep quiet about it. Kate clearly rubs people the wrong way and doesn’t inspire them to want to help her, but a bit of extra backstory explaining the reasons for the mass reticence might have been useful.
Still, this psych-thriller has enough mystery to keep readers guessing and then some. Fans of Gillian Flynn will be pleased with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
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