This fascinating murder mystery, which is set in New York in the 1970s, opens with a 12-year-old boy, Stephen, coming home to his Upper Westside apartment to find his mother dead on the floor. Gina has been raped and stabbed multiple times. The TV is still on and all the windows are open.
Outside, it was getting darker. Inside too. He was crying.
Her black hair was still in its ponytail. It was spread out like she was jumping. She was making a face that he didn't like to look at. He thought about touching her, but didn't.
Down the hall, a quiet thud and two creaks.
His feet and hands tingled. Get out, he thought. He stood; his knees cracked, and he headed toward the front door. The sound of something heavy being lifted and put down again. He was still crying. He started down the hall. He couldn't believe he was doing it.
There was blood. Streaky patches of it. And then it stopped. His foot hit something that rolled. Glass beads. He recognised them from the necklace she liked to wear.
Her bedroom door was open a little. Shadows moved behind it.
He ran the last few feet. His head felt like he'd been holding his breath too long. 'Hey,' he called. 'Hey'.
One leg was disappearing out the window onto the fire escape. Jeans. A white sock. Adidas sneaker. White with green stripes.
From this frightening opening, the reader is taken on a rollercoaster ride through Stephen's new life without his mother. Until his estranged father flies in from California, he is taken into the care of his mother's boyfriend, who later becomes a suspect in the case. But Stephen think he is too nice to have carried out the crime.
Eventually, the police investigation stalls, perhaps because Gina's past has been littered with too many boyfriends (she keeps a rogue's gallery on her wall) for the police to track down and interview. Her diary has also gone missing, and so any secrets she may have kept have gone to the grave with her.
Fast-forward 18 months and we are introduced to Lily Chin, a teacher, who is engaged to be married. But Nikolai, her wealthy Russian fiance, is not all that he seems. Lily discovers his darker side thanks to a woman called Tina, who claims to have been a previous girlfriend. Tina reveals the location of an apartment that Nikolai keeps for his secret liaisons, and it is here, in this apartment, that Lily finds Gina's diary. Did Nikolai murder her?
The story then jumps forward once again, this time by a decade. Here the narrative is taken up by an elderly woman who is dying of cancer. Louise Carpanetti lived with her 'slow' son, Mark, above Gina's apartment when she was murdered. In fact, Louise took a phone call from Gina on that fateful day but for some unfathomable reason hung up on her. Now she is plagued by fears that it was Mark who killed her. How should she handle this, given that someone else has already been arrested for the crime? Should she confront her emotionally dependent son, who, at the age of 55, still lives at home with her, or leave things be?
This is one of those subtle but disturbing books that contains stories within stories, each of them interlinked in ways that are not immediately obvious. Indeed, I had to read the book twice to fully comprehend them, and even then I still have not worked out who the murderer is -- although I have my suspicions.
Shephard writes the story from various perspectives, each of which is written in a distinctive, original voice, so that the reader has to do some mental gymnastics to sort it all out into some form of cohesive order. But I liked being able to build up a slow mental picture of the victim instead of being force-fed it had the author employed a more straightforward narrative style.
My only quibble is that Don't I Know You? has too many questions and not enough answers, causing me to reach the end feeling frustrated rather than satisfied. For that reason I think it would make an excellent reading group book, if only because it's likely to divide opinion and there's plenty of issues to discuss, particularly on the theme do we ever really know the people closest to us?