I’ve read many crime novels and thrillers this summer. Some of them still make me yawn. Luckily, Tammy Cohen’s novel When She Was Bad wasn’t one of them. On the contrary. I really enjoyed the story, the characters, and the structure. The book is told as a dual narrative, from eight different points of view. This could have resulted in a very disjointed story but it is rounded and convincing. Everyone who has ever worked in an office will recognize many things— petty jealousies, backstabbing, gossip, toxic bosses, ludicrous team building events, but also daily rituals, after-work drinks, and camaraderie.
If there hadn’t been the blurb on the book cover and the first chapter from the point of view of Anne, a character who is outside of the story, I wouldn’t have considered this to be a psychological thriller at first. That’s not a bad thing, because it is captivating nonetheless. It works just as well as a story about office politics as it works as a thriller.
But the initial chapter is there and tells us that something bad will happen. Anne, the narrator of that chapter, is a psychologist. When she was a young woman she worked with very troubled children. One of these children has committed a crime. She sees the now grown-up on TV and remembers. Her memories, which form the first narrative strand, explain why a horrific crime happened, while the second narrative strand, at the office, tells us the story of the crime.
At the beginning of the story set at the office, the former boss of a group of people has been sacked without forewarning. A new boss, Rachel, has taken over. Initially the group, consisting of six people, is brought closer together because of this. They feel like victims. Not only did they like their old boss, but they are afraid of possible changes and have heard that the new boss is toxic. As soon as Rachel arrives, the group dynamic changes as she’s one of those bosses who play their employees off against each other. But her toxicity doesn’t stop there. She poisons the atmosphere, is openly hostile and offensive, and makes everyone feel inadequate.
It was fascinating to read how the different members of the group experience her and where they stand in their personal lives. The characters are all so different and for each of them something else is at stake.
There’s plenty of conflict from the beginning of the novel and there’s the second narrative which explores a story of child abuse, but what made this really suspenseful is a series of things that happen that show there’s someone among the group who wants to harm people. So, with the exception of Anne, everyone, even the former boss, is a suspect of foul play and the reader is led to belive that each of them would be capable of doing something dreadful.
There was a manipulative element that bugged me a bit, once I found out who was capable of committing a crime, but the book as a whole, especially as a story of office life, was so entertaining that I’m willing to forgive that. I would also happily read another of Tammy Cohen’s novels. Tammy Cohen has also written as Tamar Cohen and, next year, Transworld Books will publish a novel written under her pen name Rachel Rhys. When She Was Bad has just been optioned for TV.