The title “The Therapist” is a big part of the mystery itself. Author B.A. Paris lets us know, first through occasional first person posts from someone who is obviously a therapist, that the identity of the therapist is a mystery. We have no idea who the therapist is, nor do we know who the clients are. But we do know that there is something off about this therapist with a “relaxation room” next door.
The main story is also told in first person narrative, and the protagonist, Alice, shares with us her conflicted feelings about leaving the cottage where she was raised south of London in order to be with Leo, her boyfriend of a year. She loves Leo although he is very secretive about some things. They agree that they will each sell their homes and move in together in London, where he will be closer to work. Alice really wants things to work, and when he finds a beautiful house in an exclusive enclave of London called The Circle, she’s thrilled that the price is such that she won’t have to sell her cottage. She rents it out, and they move into their beautiful home.
The setting, this quiet, gated community of twelve houses, seems almost Stepford-ish. The neighbors all know each other and get together at their homes for coffee and at the square, the park that sits at the center of the community, to chat. Everyone can see each other’s homes, so there’s little privacy, but Alice is used to a small village where everyone knows each other, so this is a plus. Everyone seems welcoming except Tamsin, a former model who seems antagonistic at first. As Alice gets to know the other women in the estate (what they call the small circle of homes), she senses that there is something that she doesn’t know about her house.
We meet the neighbors, including a strangely reclusive older couple, and slowly Alice gets to know them. She is shocked when she is told that the house they live in was the site of a murder 18 months previously. A woman named Nina was strangled in the bedroom of their home. Her husband, Oliver, was presumed to be the killer, and he killed himself. But questions abound, not the least of them from the handsome private investigator who was the one to share this tragic information with Alice. She is convinced that the estate agent who sold them the property neglected to tell them about the murder and is devastated when she learns that Leo knew about the murder but chose to hide it from her. Alice feels that she can’t trust Leo, especially since he knew that she has a strange obsession with women named Nina after her own sister, Nina, died in a tragic accident with Alice’s parents.
At this point in the novel, Alice is working with the private investigator, Thomas, to try to discover who really killed Nina. Thomas appears very sympathetic and he drops by to share information with Alice. Alice and Leo’s relationship is fractured by his disclosure, and she decides to tell no one about Thomas and his investigation. After all, who knows which person in The Circle is the one who killed Nina? There are so many possibilities, so many suspects.
The mystery is expertly presented. Paris shares enough information that we realize practically all of the people in the community might have a reason for killing Nina. And we are given reason to suspect that Leo might not be blameless when he overreacts to a simple question Alice asks him. But often we are frustrated when Alice makes poor decisions or comes to conclusions that are simply wrong. For example, when she gets back a set of keys Leo had entrusted to a neighbor and is relieved that no one else has house keys, we wonder why she doesn’t realize how simple it is to have copies of keys made. And when she and Leo suspect that there are intruders in the night, you’d think they’d immediately change all the locks on the doors.
Paris cleverly allows us –invites us — to smugly believe we’ve figured out who the murderer is, and then she throws in a few more twists. What we realize is that we never truly know whether people are what they appear to be. That neighbor, for example, who walks a dog every morning and waves a cheery hello? What secrets are hidden in the recesses of her closet, her basement, or even her mind? What secrets are hidden in the minds of every single character?
Please note: This review is based on the advance readers’ edition provided by the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, for review purposes.