Book Review: The Perfect Liar by Thomas Christopher Greene
By John Valeri
Thomas Christopher Greene may be relatively new to the realm of psychological suspense, but he’s got the bonafides to back him up. While The Headmaster’s Wife (2014) and If I Forget You (2016) announced his arrival, Greene wrote three previous novels (Mirror Lake, I’ll Never Be Long Gone, and Envious Moon) that hinted at an eventual transition to this territory. Also an academic, he founded the Vermont College of Fine Arts and continues to serve as its president. His newest book, The Perfect Liar, once again draws upon the claustrophobic nature of that world.
As the story opens, we meet Max W, a successful artist and speaker whose unique brand of fame has taken him from the crowded streets of New York City to a quiet town in Vermont, where he teaches at the local university and lives in a sprawling home with his wife, Susannah, and her fifteen-year-old son from a previous marriage. It’s a cushy gig that allows him to travel regularly, collecting the lucrative appearance fees that offset his charmed lifestyle. But this seemingly idyllic existence is threatened when somebody leaves an anonymous note affixed to the couple’s front door: I KNOW WHO YOU ARE.
It’s a disconcerting discovery, rendered more sinister in its simplicity. You see, Max W was actually born Phil Wilbur until a chance encounter with a privileged art student named Max Westmoreland emboldened him to assume a new identity. The fear of his past catching up with the present has always lingered just beneath the surface, and this dramatic overture—the first in an escalating series of notes—starts the simmer that will soon reach a boiling point. Meanwhile, Susannah has her own secrets to keep, and being cloistered in her house while under the threat of exposure induces the panic attacks that have continually plagued her. Both husband and wife, then, are driven to desperate acts of self-preservation in an attempt to vanquish their villains.
The Perfect Liar is a study in contrasts. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the characters themselves. While Max is an extrovert who craves the attention of his adoring public, Susannah is far more reticent and fears the scrutiny that comes with stature; consequently, the notion of subjection inspires different responses within them. Then, there’s the juxtaposition of their frenetic early years in New York City with the relative calm of their current life in New England, which is fractured when these worlds collide. Further, the idea of art itself—and its inherent potential for both malleability and manipulation—begs the question of whether or not there’s a separation between the creator and the creation. After all, it’s this theme of identity, or person vs. persona, that underscores the entirety of the narrative.
Thomas Christopher Greene knows the insular world of academia well, and brings the requisite politics, popularity, and power plays (which are not mutually exclusive) to a riveting tale of people behaving badly to protect one another—and themselves—at any cost. Like works of art that inspire conversation and debate, you may not fully appreciate or understand them, but you won’t be able to look away, either—which is a complex truth that buttresses The Perfect Liar.