The tagline of Louise Candlish’s fourteenth novel, The Other Passenger, is a rather enticing one: ‘One stranger stands between you and the perfect crime’. Although as a teenager I steered away from reading thrillers, I now find them a genre I keep returning to; I love the myriad twists and turns, and the occasional suspensions of disbelief which I have to make in order to let myself be carried away by the story.
Candlish is one of the most prominent contemporary authors of psychological thrillers in the UK. I must admit that I don’t have the most positive experience with this author’s books; I didn’t finish her novel Those People when I attemped to read it in 2019, as it did not hold my interest. However, I was keen to give her work another go.
There are four main characters in The Other Passenger – middle-aged Jamie Buckby and his partner Clare, and the much younger couple of Kit and Melia Roper. The quartet meet one another at the start of 2019, living just streets away from each other in an up-and-coming part of London. Jamie – a former internal communications worker, and now happy working shifts a cafe in the city – and Kit, who is in insurance, soon begin to commute together, travelling into the city by river bus each morning, and returning home together each evening.
At the time everything turns on its head, Jamie and Kit have only known each other for a year – ‘the longest year of my life’, comments Jamie. He goes on to say: ‘Before I start, I should like to point out that it wasn’t me who got us tangled up with the Ropers, but Clare. The woman who is now their fiercest critic was also their discoverer and erstwhile champion. For a while there, she thought they were the bee’s knees – both of them.’
At the outset of The Other Passenger, Jamie becomes the main suspect in Kit’s disappearance, after another passenger on the river bus reports to the police that they saw the pair arguing on the previous night, following Christmas drinks. He is reported missing just after Christmas 2019, in the lull before New Year. The scene is set as follows: ‘Like all commuter horror stories, mine begins in the mean light of early morning – or, at least, officially it does.’ He is approached by a policeman as soon as he disembarks: ‘He presses the ID closer to my face so I can see the distinctive blue banner, the white lettering, and straightaway my heart pulses with a horrible suction, as if it’s constructed of tentacles, not chambers.’ This initial meeting is deemed ‘just an informal chat for now’.
The present day story shifts backwards in time, alternatively revealing and hiding elements of the relationships which the quartet build. It is clear that a lot has been concealed, something which is certainly expected in a thriller. Candlish nods to a lot of hidden and buried secrets, and makes us party to the fact that each of her characters is hiding something pivotal from the others.
From the first, Jamie puts the reader’s guard up; it is clear that there is something not quite right. He is an unreliable narrator, and a thoroughly unlikeable one. Indeed, I found every character here thoroughly unlikeable. They are selfish, judgemental, and entitled. All of the hurt and aspect which they experience is the fault of one another.
I had a lot of qualms with this novel, particularly with regard to the first half. I did not find Jamie at all convincing as a character, and really struggle to believe that a middle-aged man would refer to a woman as ‘insanely cute’, for instance. The conversations between characters felt unrealistic; they are a little stilted, and a little overdone, with unnatural turns of phrase, and unlikely language used.
I found the elements of the story which were clearly supposed to come as a surprise really obvious, and guessed a couple of them long before they happened. The Other Passenger is readable, but I found the pacing highly inconsistent. The novel is hardly a page-turner; the first half feels sluggish, and there are not enough plot points which hold the interest. I did find that the pace became more akin to what I expect from a thriller in the second part, but it still jumped around a little too much. The chapters are unnecessarily lengthy, and many of them reveal very little; it felt as though there was a lot of padding at play. The Other Passenger is a little overwritten too; this is one of the main issues which I had with Those People, and which caused me to put it down.
There are not enough twists and turns in The Other Passenger, and barely any red herrings – something which I personally really enjoy in a thriller or crime story. I felt largely indifferent to the story, and did not feel compelled to carry on with it until I reached the last fifty or so pages. At this point, though, I think I was just keen to finish reading.
Candlish is an author who appeals to many people, and I am aware that I am in the minority here, but I prefer my thrillers with a little more bite, and with believable characters. I did not care about any of Candlish’s protagonists; they were horrid! This is also not the most memorable book; I am typing this review just a day after finishing it, but the characters and plot of The Other Passenger are already starting to feel a little shadowy. For me, this novel would have been a far more enjoyable read had it felt more consistent, and maintained a faster pace throughout. I think it is good practice to give an author another chance if you haven’t really enjoyed your first foray into their work, but Candlish is not an author who will be on my radar in future.