Renée Knight’s “Disclaimer” starts with readers meeting a documentary filmmaker named Catherine Ravenscroft who is in the midst of being violently sick. What has shocked her into that? She has picked up a book, “The Perfect Stranger,” near the bed and read just enough of it to recognize herself as its heroine. And she sees that it’s about the terrible, life-destroying secret that she’s kept for 20 years and thought no one else could possibly know. But someone wrote this. Someone spiteful. The book’s disclaimer, about its bearing no resemblance to anyone living or dead, has been threateningly crossed out in red ink.
Knight is a new author with some credits in TV and one course in “Writing a Novel” behind her. Nothing in her background suggests that she could leap into the overcrowded field of crime writing and emerge at the top of the heap. But that’s what she’s done with “Disclaimer,” an outstandingly clever and twisty tale that’s been perfectly engineered to make heads spin. Its first devilish move, after scaring the daylights out of Catherine, is to jump back two years and introduce the creepy person tormenting her.
He is an old, retired, much-loathed schoolteacher named Stephen Brigstocke. He narrates part of the book in the first person and is eager to confide, and almost anything he says (“I’m a widower”) takes on a sinister and suspect ring. He has or had a wife named Nancy. He likes wearing her cardigan. It’s not so easy to know whether Nancy, like Mother Bates in “Psycho,” is alive or dead.
“Disclaimer” starts a bit slowly, as Stephen gets himself into position to stalk Catherine and Catherine tries to find out how the book got into her house. As in “Gone Girl,” the wife and husband here have very different points of view and appear to keep secrets from each other. On a parallel track, Stephen and Nancy have a marriage full of secrets, too. And each couple has one son, a plot point that will eventually matter quite a lot.
Both Catherine and Stephen are too smart to stick to the same strategies indefinitely. She decides to stop being scared and start going on the offensive, thus tilting the book in a new direction.
Over on Stephen’s side of the story – and remember, this is all only warm-up – we begin to learn how the book came to be. And who actually wrote it. And what basis it has in fact, at least from Stephen’s perspective, which may be completely berserk and untrustworthy. And now Knight’s strengths and weaknesses make themselves equally clear.
She’s a very gifted plotter with a keen sense of timing. She knows just when to amp up the suspense and begin sharply cross-cutting between Catherine and Stephen; the book eventually whipsaws, from action to reaction.
But Knight also shows some glaring awkwardness as a writer. To put it mildly, she can be purple. (“Death. Always leaving its predatory stench, like a lusty tomcat long after it has left the scene.”) And though there’s a lot riding on “The Perfect Stranger,” the book-within-the-book that rocks Catherine to her core, it turns out to be an erotic but otherwise wan disappointment.
But this novel’s opening promise of menace is not overstated. Knight lives up to the initial deal she made with readers and delivers fully on the threat she used to hook them. That’s a rare payoff in a genre full of letdowns. Its value can’t be stressed enough.
The denouement ought to lie in the graphic memories Catherine has long hidden about one fateful, amorous, terrifying encounter that changed lives two decades before the story begins. Knight had every reason to be content with that. But she pushes on further, and her decision to do so should prompt heated conversation among those who follow “Disclaimer” past this whammy and all the way through to its extra ending, which can be seen as flat-out bonkers. I’m in the camp that thinks she should have quit while she was ahead.
Harper, 336 pages