What made Paula Hawkins's 2015 debut “The Girl on the Train” such a success? The novel's plot – about marital infidelity and its homicidal consequences – was the standard stuff of psychological suspense fiction. But Hawkins' distinctive zigzag storytelling style helped sell 20 million copies worldwide and turned the novel into a (so-so) Hollywood movie.
Hawkins' technique is similar to the “KonMari method” of clothes-folding pioneered by Japanese organizing maven Marie Kondo. Her short chapters ingeniously double back on themselves in much the same way a drawer of sweaters, neatened up by Kondo, are pleated and flattened to accordion-sharp perfection. At last, everything slots into place.
Now Hawkins is back with a second thriller. Many of the elements that helped propel “The Girl on the Train” are present here: a vivid setting and a collection of unreliable narrators who tell variations on a single tale, adding a curious detail here, contradicting a crucial point there.
But something's amiss in this second novel: It's stagnant rather than suspenseful.
Hawkins' story opens with a young woman named Jules Abbott, who has just been summoned to her older sister Nel's house by two police officers. That house, located in a small town in the north of England, is the family homestead, although it's easy to see why Jules fled after she reached adulthood. The place sits so close to a river that it seems on the verge of toppling into the foul water below.
Nel's corpse has been found in the Drowning Pool, a notorious spot beneath a cliff that she has been obsessively photographing. Nel was researching the history of local women who died in the Drowning Pool – some were suicides, others met their oblivion unwillingly. The first known drowning was that of Libby Seeton, a young girl who was accused of witchcraft. She was fatally dunked in the river in the autumn of 1679.
Readers may wonder why the town council hasn't erected a chain-link fence around that darn Drowning Pool. An answer, of sorts, is supplied by an old woman named Nickie Sage, the local soothsayer: “People turned a blind eye. ... No one liked to think about the fact that the water in that river was infected with the blood and bile of persecuted women, unhappy women; they drank it every day.”
Into this murk wades Jules. She'd been estranged from Nel for years, but now she assumes guardianship of her angry and devastated niece, Lena, and begins investigating her older sister's mysterious drowning. Suspects begin to hatch like mayflies: There's the handsome high school teacher, the nasty retired policeman and his peculiarly doting daughter-in-law. These characters, along with almost everyone else Jules meets, tell their own versions of the truth. Jules dredges up dirt until, inevitably, there's a climactic scene at the water's edge, where another victim seems destined to vanish into the drink.
In “The Girl on the Train,” Hawkins ingeniously created a situation where an emotionally stuck heroine is jolted back to life in the course of her daily rides past a landscape that alters radically. In “Into the Water,” however, Hawkins' stock townspeople circle round the Drowning Pool, whose sinister nature has remained static for centuries. The revelations about her sister's life and death produce but a ripple in Jules's day-to-day life.
“Into the Water” is a dull disappointment of a thriller; one good flush would put everybody – characters and readers alike – out of their misery.
Maureen Corrigan is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” and a professor of literature at Georgetown University.