Thriller Thursday: The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Thriller, Suspense
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Minotaur Books (May 25, 2021)
Length: 288 pages
Less a mystery thriller and more of a suspenseful character study, The Photographer by Mary Dixie Carter is like a cautionary tale about how seemingly well-adjusted people can in fact be hiding a batshit crazy version of themselves beneath a façade of kindness and normalcy. It’s what made this book so creepy, especially considering the protagonist is something of an expert on creating illusions and presenting only the best sides of a subject. For you see, Delta Dawn is a professional photographer, specializing in family portraits and events. It’s her job to capture perfect memories for her upper crust clients, even if it is all a lie. After all, in her line of work, some post-production editing is always to be expected. The real magic happens later in her studio, where lighting effects can be manipulated, flaws erased with software, and frowns and tears transformed into smiles and laughter with just a few clicks of a button. It’s one of the reasons why Delta’s services are so highly-sought after by the elite families of New York City—everyone wants what she’s selling, a version of themselves they wish were real.
So when Delta was hired to photograph the Straub’s daughter Natalie, she was unfazed by the pomp and pageantry surrounding the eleven-year-old’s birthday party. However, that was before she became enchanted by the family’s gorgeously styled house as well as the sophistication, beauty, and elegance of the Straubs themselves. Fritz and Amelia Straub are both architects, and Delta is impressed by their understanding of lighting and use of clean lines in the design of their own home. With them, she also feels a kindred spirit and can’t help but be drawn to the couple. Sensing an opportunity, Delta volunteers to be their babysitter, giving her an excuse to get closer and a reason to be alone in their home once Natalie is asleep. Before long, Delta is dreaming of what it would be like to be fully inserted into the Straubs’ lives, imagining herself as Amelia’s best friend or Fritz’s mistress, going as far as to photoshop herself into their pictures in rather, um, compromising positions in some cases. And then, she finds out that Amelia is desperate to have a second child but is struggling with fertility issues. This gives Delta an idea, one that takes her to a whole new level of obsession and derangement as she develops a plan which would ensure her a permanent place in the Straubs’ lives.
Believe it or not, all this is just scratching the surface. Make no mistake, Delta is a deeply disturbed and dangerous woman, even if she doesn’t show it in any kind of overt or violent way. Like I said, it’s what made The Photographer such a hair-raisingly uncomfortable read, because had we not been inside Delta’s head, there would have been no reason to suspect anything out of the ordinary. While she might seem like your average everyday sane person, her public face or what she chooses to present to the rest of the world is about as authentic as the photos she takes for her high society clients–that is to say, not at all. The reader learns very quickly to doubt everything she tells us, leaving one to guess what might be real and what might be pure fabrication.
Delta herself is a complicated puzzle, the kind of character who gives rise to sick fascination and curiosity. You will feel plenty of rage and disgust at her for the things she does and says, there’s no doubt about that. The woman has no sense of respect for boundaries, crossing the lines of propriety again and again while hiding behind a façade of selflessness and friendship. She lies, she manipulates, she obfuscates. Still, as misguided as she is, there’s no denying the conviction of her actions or the pure desperation behind her desire to be a part of the Straubs’ lives. Her devotion to Amelia and Fritz is frighteningly real, and it’s also very sad, because one gets the sense that she is the way she is because her own existence is so empty, she feels the need to fill the void with something, anything. Plus, in spite of yourself, you might even come to admire her sheer audacity or have your mind blown by the lengths she will go to get what she wants. She is calculating and also patient, a dangerous combo.
The Straubs are also interesting here, because the author certainly did not intend for you to feel too sorry for them. Amelia, Fritz, and Natalie are written to be more in line with your typical domestic suspense and psychological thriller family—perfect on the outside, but in reality, everything is falling apart. As Amelia spirals out of control from her own poisonous fixation with having another child, the daughter she already has is neglected and swept aside. It’s heartbreaking, really. And in fact, Delta’s single most redeeming quality may be her genuine affection for Natalie and her awareness that what Amelia is doing to the young girl is wrong.
In sum, The Photographer is a very different kind of psychological thriller. Sure, you might have to overlook a few minor plot holes or suspend your disbelief here or there, but in the overall scheme of things, it’s not such a bad deal considering the amount of entertainment you’ll be getting. There are also no huge twists, mainly because a story like this doesn’t need any. Believe me, Delta herself is enough to contend with, her unpredictable psyche and mercurial moods keeping the reader on their toes, which guarantees never a dull moment. I blew through this book, which kept me glued to the pages—exactly what I wanted.