Seemingly docile dogs, the bloodied body of a man who was a fraud, a woman who studies psychopaths. Strap yourself in.
“The Hand That Feeds You” goes from zero to terrifying in about five pages.
The novel’s narrator, Morgan Prager, a 30-year-old graduate student working on a thesis on the psychology of crime victims, comes home from a lecture to find the front door of her Brooklyn apartment ajar. There’s a mess of some kind on the floor, and her three dogs — Cloud, a Great Pyrenees she has had since puppyhood, and Chester and George, two pit bull mixes she’s fostering — are badly frightened and smeared with what she realizes is blood.
The worst is what’s in the bedroom: the mangled body of her fiance, Bennett.
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All at once, she has lost the man she loves and the dogs she loves, because they’re confiscated as evidence in Bennett’s death.
In short order she feels as if she’s losing her mind as well. The trauma of Bennett’s death is part of it, but nothing seems to add up, starting with the fact that her dogs have never been at all aggressive, much less capable of a savage, fatal attack.
How Bennett died is one question, but she soon discovers there’s another: who he was. His name, his job, his address — all fake. The further Morgan delves into researching him, the worse it gets. She can’t find his real name, but she does find his other fiancees, including one who was recently murdered. “Was there something that Bennett had not lied to me about?” she wonders.
The novel’s sense of dread builds as Morgan finds herself questioning the motives of almost everyone she encounters, from the idealistic lawyer who offers to try to save her dogs to an artist who is one of Bennett’s exes, now living in an isolated cabin with a fierce Rottweiler. About the only person Morgan feels she can trust is her brother, Steven, who says of Bennett, “If the guy wasn’t already dead, I’d kill him.”
“The Hand That Feeds You” keeps up a breakneck pace and a tensely creepy tone, and its spare, well-crafted writing is a cut above many thrillers.
That comes as no surprise, given its authors. On its cover, the book is credited to A.J. Rich, but that’s a pen name for authors Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment, who wrote it together.
Both women are on the faculty of the creative writing program at the University of Florida, and both are critically acclaimed authors of literary fiction. Hempel has won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction (and is also a founding member of two dog rescue organizations). Ciment has published five novels (“Heroic Measures” was made into the movie “5 Flights Up,” starring Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton); both have received Guggenheim fellowships and other awards.
Hempel and Ciment have addressed dark topics in their fiction before, but “The Hand That Feeds You” is a straight-up foray into the genre of psychological thriller, and an irresistible one.
“The Hand That Feeds You” by A.J. Rich (273 pages; Scribner; $26)