After 15 years of marriage, Millicent and her husband are finding that life in the Florida suburbs is a little, well, dull. She’s a real estate agent, he’s the tennis pro at the local country club. They’re not rolling in dough, but they’re doing well enough in a nice subdivision while raising two teenagers, Rory and Jenna.
They have family dinners. And friends. And date nights. And a hobby. Their hobby is not like those of most other couples.
Millicent and her husband are serial killers. We know this in the earliest pages of the novel, so this revelation is no spoiler.
Their first murder is an accident, one orchestrated by Millicent’s past, but an accident nonetheless. The second killing happens a bit more easily.
Then the real game begins. The couple meet on “date nights” to discuss prospects for their next victim. The husband (unnamed throughout his first-person narration) is the appointed hunter, seeking out strong but vulnerable women who match the couple’s criteria. He does deep research, often meeting the women face-to-face under an assumed identity. He even sleeps with a few of them.
His wife, Millicent, likes the killing. She also likes secrets. We soon realize that she’s enjoying this way too much and is keeping hubby in the dark about some very important details.
To throw the police off track, she begins following certain patterns of a dreaded, unconvicted serial killer who prowled the neighborhood almost 20 years before. Owen Oliver Riley, the terrifying boogeyman, snatched women off the streets, kept them captive for months and ultimately dumped their maimed bodies somewhere while taunting police and the press. His murderous spree plunged the Florida community into fear until he was arrested, tried on flimsy evidence, and released. The killings abruptly stopped.
The husband, originally not consulted on this rebirth-of-Owen idea, buys in to the ruse, even to the point of sending letters signed by the previous killer to the lead TV reporter following the new cases. Has the fiend from 20 years ago come back to his old haunts? How will he feel about being co-opted by these amateurs? Will their acts draw him out and put the copycat killers in danger?
There’s a lot of collateral damage in this story. The teens, having no clue that their parents are behind the recent disappearances, both develop paranoias. The couple’s best friends are drawn onto the Owen sidelines with tragic consequences. And still, the game plays on, with the husband stalking and wooing prospects while the lovely wife cooks organic meals, runs the household on a shipshape schedule and waits for her husband to produce her next victim.
But the fun can’t last forever. As with many cat-and-mouse plots, the cat eventually becomes the prey. How this comes about is a wickedly delicious premise that may or may not follow any of the breadcrumb trails the author has scattered for us.
Marketed as “Dexter meets Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” Downing’s disturbing tale has already been sold across Europe, and it has “made for the big screen” stamped all over it. It’s hard to believe this is her debut novel. The conversations are dead-on natural — believable, even when the couple are discussing the unbelievable things they’ve done. The plot is rich in twists and turns, loyalty and betrayals, love and loathing. The prose is crisp and easy to read. Just not easy to put down.
When you’re ready for a long weekend with a psychologically twisted page-turner, “My Lovely Wife” is your perfect date.
Ginny Greene is a night copy editor at the Star Tribune.