Can we ever truly know what lurks beneath the surface of people’s composed exteriors? Tammy Cohen’s latest thriller confronts this question. When She Was Bad is a finely crafted and unsettling mystery following a recruitment office in London. All we’re told at the beginning is that a brutal murder has taken place and it was committed by a seemingly ordinary person.
Formidable boss Rachel Masters is hired to whip an underperforming recruitment department into shape, but faces a hostile reaction from the tight-knit team who suffer under her tyranny. Amira, Paula, Charlie, Ewan, Chloe and Sarah now spend their days walking on eggshells trying to impress Rachel and keep their jobs. Because of Rachel’s conniving tactics, the friends become suspicious and paranoid, constantly wondering where they stand and who has betrayed them.
The office consists of recognisable, relatable characters and Cohen perfectly captures the subtleties of office politics. Rachel seems to enjoy pitting the friends against each other and bringing out the worst in people. Their relationships deteriorate and the environment becomes toxic and ugly. Everyone in the office has secrets of their own and it gets harder for them to maintain the balance between their professional and personal lives. But which one of them is a murderer?
Across the Atlantic, child psychologist Dr Anne Cater reflects on a major case that changed the course of her life. As a young PhD starting out, she was involved in a disturbing case of child abuse. When she reflects more on those early days of her career, the story gains momentum, and it’s clear that Anne’s experience has some link with the present-day murder on the other side of the world. Trying to figure out this connection is no easy task.
Cohen gives us little information about the murder itself and throws many a red herring into the mix, just to confuse us even more. The points of view are switched rapidly, making it disorienting, tense and exciting to read. Characters’ secrets and motives are gradually revealed and it’s almost impossible to determine where the novel is heading. The only letdown is that it’s rushed towards the end, giving us little time to process the events that unfold.
When She Was Bad was published by Black Swan on 20 April 2016.