Obsession can be innocent or deadly. With Joe, it’s deadly.

When Guinevere Beck enters Joe Goldberg’s bookshop, she has no notion of the consequences their mildly flirtatious banter will enable. Joe ought to know better. Joe has experienced consequences before. But from the moment he sees Beck and salivates that ‘You’re so clean you’re dirty’, his obsession with her envelops both their lives.

What’s it about?

The storyline is obviously focused on Joe’s unrelenting quest to love Beck and, often more chillingly, to protect her, but there’s a lot about Joe and Beck to discover along the way. Joe works in an independent bookstore and this is far more than just a conveniently unpeopled setting: Joe judges people by their book selections and thoroughly enjoys discussing literature with Beck, who claims she has ambitions to become a writer but mostly spends her time writing emails and posting updates on social media sites. Oh, and masturbating using an old pillow in front of her uncurtained apartment windows.

What’s it like?

Fascinatingly creepy. Disturbing. Entertaining.

If you appreciate his biting tone and impatience with ‘fake’ people then you may be surprised to find yourself rooting for Joe rather than Beck, even as he attempts (fairly successfully) to isolate her from those friends he deems a threat. Joe is a fascinating character, at once brutally honest and fatally dishonest: he is clearsighted about everyone around him except for Beck and his own attentions to her.

His emotional rollercoastering as Beck picks him up, drops him and picks him up again are far more likely to garner your reluctant sympathy than Beck’s persistent shallow attention to herself. Her egoism and self-centred nature seems like a perfect match for Joe’s, and while she craves attention, he wants nothing more than to give her his undivided attention. But of course, Joe is narrating this story, and while he’s not exactly unreliable, his viewpoint is very…focused. When Beck’s friend, Peach, complains that her apartment has been broken into and things stolen, Joe is indignant – albeit only in his head. ‘I didn’t break in and I didn’t move her chaise. I used a service key I found at the party….I brought an acrylic jacket for that Bellow, so the bitch should say thank you.’ Ah. Well, that’s ok then…

“I don’t think of him as a serial killer, but as a problem solver.” Caroline Kepnes on Joe

Alongside the literary references (Stephen King, Dan Brown, e.e. cummings, Paul Fox, Salinger, ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and ‘The Western Coast’ all feature in just the first two chapters) there are masses of pop culture references and snippets of social media. While Joe (of course) abhors Facebook et al, he does find these sites frighteningly useful in the course of his various stalker-y activities, and reading this may well make you think twice about what you share online.

What’s not to like?

There’s a lot of bad language, all of which is in keeping with Joe’s moods and general character, but which may not appeal to some readers. It’s not excessive but is prevalent. Similarly, there’s a lot of sex and masturbation, male and female, which is not overly detailed but may not suit more sensitive readers.

‘Punching him is gratuitous. But then, he did use the word excellent a dozen times in twenty f***ing minutes.’ Joe

If you don’t appreciate Joe’s worldview, then you may struggle to appreciate Joe, and he’s the heart of the book. There are also a couple of episodes where you might expect more to happen as a result of Joe’s actions, but nothing does and this seems a little unrealistic, no matter how charming he can be.

Finally, Joe is, of course, a stalker. Women, or indeed men, who’ve experienced stalking might not see the humorous side here, especially as much of Joe’s first-person, ultra-knowing narration is directed at you.

Final thoughts

I loved reading this and still can’t fathom how it took me two whole weeks to complete it, as every time I picked it up I couldn’t put it down. I would have enjoyed this for all the literary references and Joe’s cynical take on life alone, but his developing relationship with Beck is chilling and fascinating. Because they are each so vividly who they are, the ending is inevitable, but it’s a testament to Kepnes’ skill that it doesn’t feel inevitable and that your sympathy for Beck is only likely to surface at the end.

As for the ending…Joe remains wonderfully, chillingly himself, and I look forward to reading more about him in Kepnes’ sequel, ‘Hidden Bodies’ (though I’m disappointed to learn that the action moves away from the bookshop). His narration is a masterpiece of understated creepiness and I look forward to reading more in a similar vein.

Caroline Kepnes,
Simon and Schuster, 2015, paperback

P.S. This was one of my finds at Crimefest16. So far, so good.