Thomas Martin always thought he was a good man. But from the start of this debut thriller by the US writer Ani Katz, it’s clear he has ruined his perfect life and hurt “my girls”, as he refers to wife Miriam and teenage daughter Ava. That he uses this diminutive, possessive appellation is no coincidence: here is a man who considers his role to be that of protector, provider and ultimately controller of women.
The term “unreliable narrator” seems like gross understatement: Thomas is slippery as an eel. He claims he’s trying to understand how things went so wrong in his successful career in advertising and life with his gorgeous French wife on Long Island. He delves into his disturbed childhood with an abusive father, suicidal older sister and creepy younger twin sisters, too. We meet these two, still living in the old family home in a state of arrested development (think The Shining meets Grey Gardens).
But Thomas increasingly peppers his story with “I can’t remember” or “I may have”. Conflicting accounts slowly seed further doubts about his veracity – his wife disputes his version of their first meeting, for instance. A colleague’s report of a drunken night varies wildly from Thomas’s telling of events.
Thomas is an opera fan and compares his downfall with that of Wagner’s Tannhäuser: “a deeply flawed man who … can gain salvation through the death of his most beloved” (a self-pitying position that feels increasingly nauseating). But Katz’s allusions to operas can be quite heavy-handed, especially when they feature somewhat stodgy plot synopses.
One of the striking things about the book is Thomas’s icky tone, as he constantly romanticises, almost Disneyfies women. At first I thought Katz was laying it on a bit thick – Miriam has “shining doe eyes”; in bed “she was untamed, and I tamed her” – but in fact she is preparing the groundwork for Thomas’s later possessive paranoia. There is some sloppy writing, however: would Thomas really liken his wife to a Picasso? Could he really smell her breath across the dining table? It’s not always clear if this carelessness is Thomas’s or Katz’s own.
Still, the story slickly slides down its twisting descent. Katz has taken us inside the mind of the sort of man you hear about on the news and wonder about, concocting a brew of professional and personal failures, shame, childhood trauma, and overinvestment in old-fashioned, rigid gender roles. But it’s perhaps still not quite heady enough to make the shift from a bad few weeks to all-out tragedy entirely convincing. I’m sure many readers will find A Good Man sordidly gripping, but I didn’t feel too keen to spend the time with this distinctly nasty man.
• A Good Man by Ani Katz is published by William Heinemann (£12.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15