“Do you know, if you rip off the front of houses, you’d find swine?”
This chilling remark was made by “Uncle Charlie” (Joseph Cotten) to his adoring niece (Teresa Wright), who has come to realize that he’s a serial killer. The film is Alfred Hitchcock’s personal favorite, SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943). Hitchcock hired OUR TOWN author, Thornton Wilder, to create an image of the perfect, sweet, homespun American family. Teresa Wright’s father was portrayed by Henry Travers, who also played the angel, Clarence, in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. You can’t get any more homespun and sweeter than that! When Uncle Charlie comes to stay with the family, it’s to elude a police manhunt on the East Coast, where he has murdered several rich widows.
Uncle Charlie seems to charm everyone in town. As his niece begins to suspect the truth about him, he tells her that she has been living a perfect, ordinary life: “You sleep your untroubled ordinary little sleep, filled with peaceful, stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares.”
The perfect family—or the perfect marriage—isn’t always what it seems. Sometimes, it just takes a stranger or relative to come into someone’s home and rip away that perfect façade, exposing the horrible secrets and lies.
This is what happens in my latest thriller, THE BETRAYED WIFE. Sheila and Dylan O’Rourke seem to have the perfect marriage and the perfect family. They live in a charming, upper class neighborhood in Seattle, where Dylan works in public relations for Starbucks and Sheila has a part time job as a dance instructor. They have three children. Then, into their lives comes a street-punk teenager named Eden, whose mother has recently met a gruesome death. Eden claims to be Dylan’s daughter from an affair he’d had long ago. A blood test proves she’s telling the truth. The girl moves in with the family, turning their perfect lives into a perfect nightmare.
Until Eden came along, Sheila had been able to turn a blind eye to her handsome husband’s womanizing. And she’d managed to live with a horrible secret from her own past. She’d felt safe in her “perfect” home. But now, after several accidents and disturbances, she can’t help feeling as if her house has been booby-trapped. Then, people start dying.
In films and books, we’ve seen how a husband’s infidelity can tear apart a perfect family—and even lead to murder. It happened in the bestseller, PRESUMED INNOCENT by Scott Turrow (who graduated from New Trier High School a few years after me), and in Gillian Fylnn’s GONE GIRL, and of course, most memorably in the film, FATAL ATTRACTION.
One of my favorite authors is Ira Levin, who gave us a seemingly perfect couple in Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse. At least, that’s how ROSEMARY’S BABY starts out—until Guy makes a deal with the devil for the sake of his acting career. And in Levin’s THE STEPFORD WIVES, the reader soon realizes that “perfect” appearances are very deceiving—and deadly.
Filmmaker, Jordan Peele, has said that Ira Levin’s work influenced his Oscar-nominated thriller, GET OUT. In the film, Peele introduces what seems to be the perfect family, and then he rips off the front of their house and exposes all their hideous secrets.
THE BETRAYED WIFE has been influenced by all of these works. But I have to give a special nod to the film, LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), based on the novel by Ben Ames Williams (I have a wonderfully beat-up “Armed Forces Edition” from 1944). In glorious Technicolor and against beautiful sets, newlyweds Richard and Ellen Harland (Cornel Wilde and Gene Tierney) seem like the perfect couple. He’s a successful author and she’s an heiress. They’re both gorgeous. She helps look after his polio-stricken kid brother. But as her own mother admits, “There’s nothing wrong with Ellen, she just loves too much.” A ruthless determination to make sure no one and nothing comes between her and Richard turns Ellen into a cold-blooded killer. She won’t let anyone get in her way, not his crippled kid brother, not even their unborn baby.
There’s a character much like Ellen in THE BETRAYED WIFE. At one point, she writes in her journal about a woman she plans to kill: “I know she has her good side, but right now, she’s just in the way.” This character stops at nothing to get what she wants. And in the process, life for the seemingly perfect family becomes the perfect nightmare.
THE BETRAYED WIFE goes on sale July 30th.
The Perfect Family
Sheila O’Rourke has always known her husband isn’t perfect. Who is? But things have been better since they moved to Seattle to make a fresh start. So much so that when sixteen-year-old Eden turns up, claiming to be Dylan’s child by another woman, Sheila tries to be welcoming.
At first, Sheila feels sympathy for the girl. Eden’s mother recently fell to her death in an incident with unsettling parallels to Sheila’s past. Still, Eden is a difficult house guest, sowing discord among the family. Sheila has already been on edge for weeks, receiving anonymous texts, noticing odd noises coming from the house next door. And that’s just the start.
A Perfect Nightmare
Sheila wants to trust Dylan. She wants to feel safe in her own home. But no one can hurt you more easily than the ones closest to you . . . the ones you keep believing until it’s too late . . .