When we meet Kay and Michael, the married couple at the center of Melanie Finn’s novel “The Underneath,” Kay is holding a hammer and idly imagining bringing it down on her husband’s head. She doesn’t, but the intrusive thought alone clues us in to the nature of their relationship: A happy marriage this is not.

The troubled couple have rented a New England farmhouse for the summer, with their two young children in tow. Michael seems to have hopes for salvaging their relationship; Kay is more cynical: “She and Michael hadn’t come here to save their marriage, they’d come to end it.” Her skepticism is confirmed when Michael, a documentary filmmaker, is summoned to Africa for work; she suspects that he’s having an affair with a colleague.

While he’s away, Kay becomes obsessed with the owners of their vacation home, who appear to have gone missing. Her sleuthing leads her to cross paths with Ben, a logger and heroin dealer who has taken in a junkie named Shevaunne. Ben hopes to save her young son from the kind of unhappy childhood he experienced as a boy. Shevaunne doesn’t care about her child; she’s an opportunist with “all the loyalty of a plastic bag on a windy day.”

“The Underneath” alternates points of view between Kay and Ben, and it’s interspersed with flashbacks to Kay’s work as a journalist in Africa, where she had been on the trail of Gen. Christmas, a despot who commands an army of child soldiers. It’s an effective technique that builds suspense naturally — Finn does an excellent job of keeping the reader guessing, and the tension in the narrative always comes across as organic, never manipulative.

“The Underneath” is an excellent thriller, and Finn has a gift for prose that’s hard-boiled but not clichéd. Perhaps most important, her characters are true to life, particularly Kay, who has mixed feelings about sacrificing her career for her husband and children, “these interlopers [who] had colonized her life, infested it, altered its form so completely she had become someone else.”

Finn is also able to make the reader sympathize with Ben, an unrepentant drug dealer who just wants to give his roommate’s son the happy childhood he never had.

There’s much to admire about “The Underneath,” and Finn’s third novel proves that she’s deeply original, a writer who’s not content with rehashing old tropes that have become overly familiar in some thrillers.

It’s an excellent book, even if it’s not likely to appeal to readers with congenital optimistic streaks: “Nature culled the useless,” Finn writes, “but humanity was brimming with it.”


Michael Schaub is a regular contributor to NPR and the Los Angeles Times, and a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Austin, Texas.

The Underneath
By: Melanie Finn.
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio, 317 pages, $26.