Not what they seem: P.J. Vernon and Carrie Jenkins deliver queer thrillers with very different tones and approaches

Bath Haus by P.J. Vernon

American-born, Calgary-based novelist P.J. Vernon doesn’t waste any time getting things rolling in his sophomore thriller. Oliver Park is looking for some sexual excitement outside the confines of his committed relationship to his not-quite-husband Nathan Klein. (The two aren’t married, though they each wear wedding rings, much to the chagrin of Nathan’s censorious parents.) As the book opens, Oliver is perched at the entrance to the eponymous bath house, where he expects to engage in some consequence-free, possibly kinky anonymous sex. Within ten pages, he meets a man calling himself Kristian who takes Oliver to a private room where he attempts to strangle the hapless philanderer to death.

When Oliver returns to the tony Georgetown property he and Nathan share, he discovers ugly bruises on his neck and in a blind panic runs a shower that ends up flooding the house. Knowing that his attempted infidelity would spell the end of his relationship with his uptight and jealous partner, he concocts a story about a mugging that he relates in a video call to Nathan, a trauma surgeon who is in New York for a conference. No sooner can the reader say “Bad idea, Oliver,” than his lie begins to unravel in the most spectacular ways imaginable. Oliver goes to the police and tells two wildly divergent stories, attracting the attention of a dogged detective named Rachel Henning. Kristian begins stalking Oliver; Nathan’s snobbish and obscenely wealthy mother detects a mechanism by which to break up her son and his former drug-addict partner; and Nathan himself becomes ever more suspicious, drawing the leash around Oliver’s neck tighter and tighter as cracks in the latter’s story begin to show.

Vernon, author of the well-received 2018 thriller When You Find Me, knows how to keep his pot at a furious boil throughout a frantically paced, psychological cat-and-mouse plot that reads like Patricia Highsmith on amphetamines. Even seasoned thriller readers may think they know where this novel is going, but there are numerous twists that are difficult to see coming and the pace is so relentless that it’s easy to devour the book in a single sitting.

What is even more impressive, however, is the sharpness with which Vernon delineates the personal relationships in the story. The stress fractures in the romance between the two protagonists are deeply felt – Oliver’s feelings of inadequacy at his lower-class upbringing and his past experience as a drug addict and petty criminal contrast with Nathan’s privileged background and ideas about conventional monogamy. And Kathy, Nathan’s horrendously bigoted mother, is perhaps the novel’s finest creation: a stuck-up, conniving matriarch who will do almost anything to rid herself of the less-than-desirable specimen her son has chosen for a mate. Without playing his hand too heavily, Vernon makes a number of significant points about class disparity and the ways in which economic circumstances conspire to determine the trajectory of a person’s life.

Told from the alternating first-person perspectives of Oliver and Nathan, the novel is structured in five parts, which cannily delineate the five stages of asphyxiation. This, too, is appropriate: Vernon’s novel is likely to leave its readers breathless.

Victoria Sees It by Carrie Jenkins

Vancouver philosopher Carrie Jenkins takes a different approach in her debut novel, the intriguing Victoria Sees It. Like Vernon, Jenkins addresses themes of class and privilege, in this case via the story of the titular woman, who is raised by her working-class aunt and uncle in England after her mother is institutionalized for psychosis. Highly intelligent, Victoria earns a scholarship to Cambridge, where she lives as a social outcast among the scions of wealth and privilege. Her only friend is a fellow student named Deb, whose whimsy and flightiness mirror Victoria’s own.

When Deb disappears, Victoria is left alone to navigate the world around her while trying to discover what happened to her companion. She finds herself attracted to a police officer named Julie, who accompanies Victoria to various locales on the trail of clues to Deb’s whereabouts. As they investigate, the two women are drawn into a tentative relationship with each other.

Like the classic Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw, much in Jenkins’s novel depends on the relative reliability of Victoria as a narrator. To what degree is she trustworthy and how closely does she cleave to her mother’s linage of mental instability and paranoia? Is Victoria merely eccentric, or is she mentally ill? In an irrational world, where does one draw the line between the two conditions? These are not merely academic questions. The novel’s title is implicative, but it is also, in one sense, absolutely literal: as readers, we see everything through the first-person perspective of Victoria. We see the story, quite literally, as Victoria sees it.

This defamiliarizes much of the narrative while simultaneously destabilizing the reader, who is never entirely sure how solid the ground underfoot really is. Victoria engages in metaphysical and ontological investigation as assiduously as she does the actual investigation of Deb’s disappearance, and her relative mental stability is often apparent only through other people’s reactions to her. Jenkins crafts a heavily allusive narrative that addresses abstract questions about the nature of time as readily as it does themes of sexism and power in academia. Victoria Sees It is not so much a psychological thriller as a philosophical thriller.

And it is a thriller, though admittedly of a more intellectual strain than Bath Haus. The final third, after Victoria leaves Cambridge and becomes a professor herself, can’t help but lose a bit of steam; the central conflicts that were so precisely drawn in the earlier stages of the book fall away, as do – at least for a little while – the plot strands involving the missing best friend and the erstwhile romantic interest, Julie.

But Jenkins’s erudite, inquisitive sensibility pervades throughout, rendering the narrative consistently thought-provoking and beguiling. This is not the kind of book that offers a solution to its central mysteries, and by the end most of the narrative’s key questions remain unanswered. But as with life, the ultimate solution is probably unavailable to us on this side of the grave. It’s the way we choose to manipulate the pieces of our individual puzzles that is important.

Not what they seem: P.J. Vernon and Carrie Jenkins deliver queer thrillers with very different tones and approaches
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