‘A skillfully executed psychological thriller’ – The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

techAt the beginning of The Engagement, Liese Campbell decides that she’s returning home to England from Melbourne, Australia where she’s been working for her uncle. But before she does, she’s been invited by Alexander Colquhoun to spend a weekend at his house in the Bush. In return, she will receive a significant amount of money, ‘enough to delay my departure for two months’.

Liese has met Alexander through her work for her uncle, renting and selling high-end properties to people buying into a fantasy lifestyle. She travelled to Australia after being fired from her job as an interior architect when the U.K. recession quelled the demand for ‘boom apartments with sleek surfaces’. The irony of selling these apartments is not lost on her:

…seeing all its uncanny resemblances to the places I’d designed in London, along with the sharper humiliation of my recent firing, made me want to somehow tarnish it. The fittings were new and smooth and begging to be soiled – that was the whole point of this kind of design. And that was why I led sober Mr Colquhoun to the double bed and began unzipping my skirt, then rolling down my tights.

After they’ve had sex, Colquhoun fumbles with a roll of cash, offering Liese one hundred dollars towards getting ‘the quilt cleaned’. Liese takes another two hundred telling him ‘It’s half price… because I like you.’ And so begins a recurring arrangement whereby Liese shows Colquhoun around a property where they have sex and he pays her for it. But there’s more to it for Liese:

Had I considered being paid before?

Of course I had. Even before I was fired. Each month the bills rolled in, an ever fiercer wave, and despite my daily commute to that computer screen in Hoxton, I was travelling further into debt. Rain streaked the office windows like exclamation marks: Do something! Act! But the money owing multiplied. It was like an organism with its own moods, its own weather, over which I had no control. One credit card and then I was offered another credit card, and it seemed to wipe the slate clean.

Whenever she meets Alexander and takes his money, she immediately recalculates her debt. It seems plausible then that she would agree to spend the weekend at his house. What she hasn’t considered is that there may be more to the arrangement for him too:

‘Liese, I know how other men fell for you.’ His laugh was bitter. ‘I know precisely how they couldn’t think or work or sleep.’

I hoped we were both acting now. ‘No, you don’t —’

‘I do,’ he said sharply. ‘Really, I do.’

The morning after she arrives at his house, Liese begins to realise that she is trapped on Colquhoun’s land:

A formal garden surrounded the house, dominated by a vast lawn…The lawn was framed by a privet hedge, then further, as far as I could see, there was flat, verdant farmland – no other buildings, just fields, bleak in their sameness…

and when she tries the front door it appears to be locked. Hooper slowly builds the tension making you wonder whether Liese is right to be afraid or is simply imagining it. Her execution is so skillful that at the point when Colquhoun is in the kitchen preparing a bird for dinner, the line ‘Picking up a steel, he casually sharpened his knife’ made me gasp aloud.

The difficulty with a thriller – even if it is literary – is not to fall into cliché and predictability. At the points where it seems as this may happen, Hooper wrong foots the reader without losing any credibility, leading to a very clever ending.

Any Cop?: This is a skillfully executed psychological thriller that is both charged and satisfying. I read it in one sitting.

Naomi Frisby


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