Book Review: The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish
The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish is an unputdownable, twisting thriller that explores privilege, societal pressures, and crime when a commuter becomes a suspect in his friend’s mysterious disappearance.
Underneath the skin of this propulsive thriller involving the sudden disappearance of a charismatic young man is a thoughtful, socially conscious examination of contemporary mores and how modern punishments fit modern crimes.
Jamie Buckby is a man of seeming contradictions. Approaching 50, he lives in an expensive London home with his partner, Clare, but abruptly quit his job as a marketing executive after a traumatic experience. Now, he works in a cafe preparing drinks and sandwiches for less than the cost of living, enjoying the job despite Clare’s nagging to get his career back on track.
Clare herself makes a good salary working for a leasing company—although she is, frankly, fortunate to have parents who bought a posh townhouse on the cheap decades back when the neighborhood it’s in was considered less than fashionable. Now, Clare and Jamie live there rent-free while her parents enjoy life in their Edinburgh hometown. Jamie is never not aware of what this means for their relationship’s power dynamic, even as he’s occasionally annoyed by how cavalierly Clare treats her privilege.
“Nice of you to pick up the bill for the champagne,” I said, when we were on our own.
“I just thought, you know, we need to remember how lucky we are,” she said, which I knew from previous declarations was code for, We need to remember how talented and hardworking we are—because people who’ve been helped never accept that their success is a simple consequence of that. They think they’d have been just as successful without it.
Also, since I was being pedantic, she meant I, not we. She hadn’t consulted me about the champagne because she had no need to. Conversely, I couldn’t have made the gesture without consulting her.
It’s actually Clare who brings about Jamie’s friendship with their young neighbor Kit Roper. Kit’s girlfriend, Melia, has started in a junior agent position at Clare’s company, and Clare soon becomes enraptured enough of the charming younger woman to invite her and her partner over for drinks. The 20-something Melia and Kit form a fast if unlikely friendship with the older couple. Discovering that Kit has a shared distaste for underground commuting to the city, Jamie joins him in getting an annual river bus pass, with the two men falling into a routine of commuting to work together along the Thames. But as time passes, their relationship begins to fray until one day a pair of police detectives is waiting at the quay as Jamie disembarks, wanting to ask him several questions about his now-missing friend Kit.
Jamie has no idea where Kit had gone off to after their last fight over pre-Christmas drinks. They hadn’t contacted each other over the holiday break, and he and Clare had gone up to Edinburgh to visit her parents, ignoring Melia’s voicemails for the duration. Now, he’s back in London, being questioned and wondering if he’d done the right thing ignoring the Ropers. Clare had already started to disengage from the younger duo and had warned Jamie off too, but he hadn’t been quite as ready to end things.
I have a sudden image of Kit at our Christmas drinks (inaugural Christmas drinks, he kept saying in that significant way of his, like he’d just invented the word, like it was some kind of legacy, a gift from him to us); appearing at our tiny table in the bar with a round of drinks, empties swept to the edge. HIs voice was thick with mockery as he raised a glass in my direction: “To Jamie, who thinks his generation’s the only one that knows how to drink…”
Was there… was there some sense of farewell in that thespian flourish? What was it he’d said to us that time about suicide? If I wanted to end it all, I’d fuck off and do it privately…
Even as I resolve not to repeat his words to these detectives, I’m visited by a sense of loss so profound I find it hard to breathe.
Jamie swears that though he and Kit parted on unpleasant terms, he left Kit safe and sound. But the detectives are hinting that another passenger saw him doing something highly suspicious, something that warrants their focus on him as the prime suspect in Kit’s disappearance. Now, Jamie’s paranoid that someone’s out to frame him for something he didn’t do. But does he have good reason to fear an innocent witness, or is there someone from his past determined to make him pay for his sins?
Most thrillers this twisty aren’t usually also this deep, so I was mightily impressed by Louise Candlish’s ability to not only surprise with criminal mischief but also to examine the contemporary social pressures that can cause people to behave badly. Kit’s irresponsibility is contrasted with Clare’s smug superiority—both are made, perhaps surprisingly, sympathetic people despite their equal refusal to acknowledge reality. But it’s in Melia and especially Jamie that Ms. Candlish upends the traditional casting of thrillers like these to create indelibly unique fictional people. The English economy, like the American, has saddled its young with crippling student debt while making it extraordinarily difficult for entry-level workers to make a living wage. Melia and Jamie are both caught up in a financial insecurity that society tells them they ought to be able to rise above despite hamstringing all their efforts at turning work into wealth. How can crime not seem a natural next step when legitimate payoffs are so hard to come by?
It was almost hard to believe that I was reading a thriller at first instead of a meditation on middle age and economic survival as we follow Jamie’s narrative back and forth in time, examining his friendship with Kit. I’d highly recommend The Other Passenger for anyone who enjoys thoughtful, literary cultural commentary with their gripping murder mysteries.