Book review: Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough

Dead to Her – Sarah Pinborough

Some might think that William Radford IV is a lucky man, aged 65 with a new 22 year old wife, but others might think that it’s Keisha who has hit the jackpot, a waitress from a Peckham high rise in a London nightclub, she’s married an old and very wealthy American businessman in Savannah, Georgia. She’s the fourth wife after the death of his William’s previous wife Eleanor. Whichever way you look at it, and believe me everyone in Savannah’s social circles are talking about it and have their own opinions, it tends to be the men who are drooling at William’s stunning new bride, while their wives aren’t quite as pleased. She’s young, she’s pretty and she’s black; she doesn’t belong there.

That gender division of opinion applies to William’s business partner Jason Maddox and his wife Marcie, but it brings other complications. Jason has been hoping that William might spend a bit more time in Europe before coming back to retire with his new plaything and leave him in charge of the business. William however has come back with a renewed vigour, even taking to a treadmill to keep up with the bedroom demands of his wife. Marcie for her part is jealous and has doubts about trusting her husband with this woman around. She knows she’s a gold digger and doesn’t like her manner, but agrees to get closer to Keisha to find and exploit any weaknesses that might show, discover what secrets she’s keeping.

Keisha certainly has both weaknesses and secrets that threaten to get her into trouble sooner or later. Most obviously she’s young and restless and still looking for adventure. Billy might satisfy whatever material needs she has, but in other respects he’s an old man, and she needs more than that. The problem is indeed that the society she is mingling with of course see the superficial gold digger, but they are too far removed from Keisha’s London immigrant origins to have any inkling that there might be a more dangerous side of her character. Inevitably, in this kind of social circle where appearances are all important, she’s not the only one who has secrets she wants to keep hidden, and when those interests clash and truths come out, there’s bound to be trouble.

That’s perhaps rather obvious characterisation and we’ve come to expect more than that from Sarah Pinborough’s usual razor sharp insights into female behaviour and rivalry (13 Minutes, Behind Her Eyes, Cross Her Heart), knowing what women want and what they’ll do to get it. There’s a lot more to these women than meets the eye in Dead to Her and Pinborough is forensic in her insight into the flow and dynamic of power between these women and how ruthlessly they can act towards outsiders or indeed anyone who threatens the stability, reputation of their own position within the circles of high society. She’s got plenty of material to work with in Savannah.

There are hints of Rebecca in the Radford household servants who are devoted to their former mistress and cool towards a new young interloper. That Hitchcockian edge becomes more pronounced when inevitably things blow up and an attempted murder takes place, and Pinborough’s handling of the mechanics of the thriller plotting are just superb. It’s like every flawed Hitchcock character flaw, psychosis, complex, lust, paranoia, obsession and addiction are all gathered together in Dead to Her. Not funnelled into one character, but into a complex web of dysfunctional people in a dysfunctional society.

Being a Sarah Pinborough novel however it’s not even going to be just as straightforward as that either. Where she mixes it up a little is in her suggestion of other slightly more arcane and supernatural powers that women might possess, and with suggestions of voodoo rituals being in the background here, there are concerns that Dead to Her might get a little bit hokey. Pinborough can lose control of an over-elaborate plot in my experience, pushing characters a little too far, but here she orchestrates all the elements and characters perfectly, and if there’s one person behind it all fiendishly manipulating everyone it’s Sarah Pinborough, and she doesn’t mess around.


Updated: Apr 18, 2020

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Book review: Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough | The Digital Fix