The Lover is a wonderfully written psychological thriller set in London in 1940 during the Blitz. We may have seen movies and read historical accounts of this World War II time frame before, but never in such day-to-day detail. Every night people would have to go to a bomb shelter, subway, or shelter at home in closets, under kitchen tables, for hours. The “all-clear” might not be sounded until the early hours of the morning, so that most people went weeks without any decent sleep, in constant fear for their lives.
Air raids could be heard all through the night, the planes coming ever closer, with people hoping and praying that theirs wouldn’t be the home that was hit that evening. The next morning on their way to work they might see their neighbor’s houses or the local tobacconist’s shop reduced to rubble. They would still have to go through the day-to-day motions of life — going to work, buying food (but only whatever their ration cards would allow), but mostly just living from one moment to the next.
Historical crime author Laura Wilson captures the air of uncertainty of this time period perfectly. Inspired by the true-life “Blackout Ripper,” a serial killer of prostitutes in the tradition of Jack the Ripper, The Lover evokes the twin threats of the nightly bombing raids and a crazed killer on the loose in London.
Real-life murderer Gordon Cummins was a 28-year-old airman. To all who knew him he must have appeared normal enough — a dashing, handsome, accomplished pilot. But in 1942 he also killed four women, most of them prostitutes, first strangling them and then mutilating their bodies, during the blackouts in a six-day spree that terrified the West End of London as much as the seemingly endless German air assaults.
The Lover is told from the viewpoint of three characters — Rene, a prostitute and potential victim, Lucy, a young woman who is naive about men and looking for romance, and Jim, an RAF pilot with a kink — he likes to kill women. Hill makes each character’s voice strong, and the reader will connect with the women, especially Rene.
The unapologetic Rene has ended up on the street after being misled by a married man and left with a child to support. She is practical and loving and we see London and many of the other characters through her clear eyes. Lucy, on the other hand, is so addled by her notions of romance that at times the reader may want to strangle her, before the Ripper gets a chance. But she is just young and innocent of the ways of the world and of men, living in a very unsure world. When the going gets tough, she does show her true colors to be that of a strong, capable, and caring woman.
Every character in The Lover is well-written, from the local people that Rene and Lucy come across in a shelter, to Jim’s victims, to an air raid warden who has a special friendship with Rene. The story is a true page-turner and kept me involved and riveted, almost until the very end, when it went off the rails.
As much as I enjoyed reading The Lover, at least before the last few pages, I have to admit that I ultimately felt let down by the author. Without totally giving away the ending, I think Wilson underestimated and undervalued her female characters in favor of going for a “shock” ending.
Throughout the novel Rene and Lucy come up against various obstacles. They have an inevitable meeting, but when the suspense portion of the novel takes hold — will they catch the Ripper or not? — and they join forces, the ending felt tacked-on, sped-through, and disappointing, to say the least.
The Lover does highlight how during wartime we may want our young men to be ruthless killers — in the air. It also examines how their constant fear of death and their job description — to kill or be killed — affects them. So many of Jim’s fellow airmen are dealing with shell-shock or battle fatigue. At times it is hard to sort out the differences between what makes him such a brilliant killer in the cockpit from his psychotic need to kill on the ground. He can’t seem to sort out his murderous urges, either.
Perhaps having to portray such a brutal hater of women, who can’t connect with them or understand them, led Wilson to not being able to treat her two female leads with enough care. After we have met all of the people in Rene’s and Lucy’s lives, become involved in their individual stories, at the end of The Lover we have no idea what happened to any of them. Unfortunately, after telling three people’s stories, the dreadful Jim takes primary focus. Once his story is at an end, so is the book.