Rachel Sargeant on her gripping psychological thriller The Perfect Neighbours

Rising star Rachel Sargeant talks about her new novel, The Perfect Neighbours, a dark and twisty psychological thriller with an ending you won’t see coming…

When Helen moves abroad with her loving husband Gary, she can’t wait to meet her fellow expat teachers from the local International School. But her new start is about to become her worst nightmare…

As soon as the charming family across the way welcome Helen into their home, she begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. Then Gary starts to behave strangely and a child goes missing, vanished without a trace.When violence and tragedy strike, cracks appear in the community, and Helen realises her perfect neighbours are capable of almost anything…


What inspired you to write this book?

The Perfect Neighbours came out of two ideas. The first was to do with the setting. I lived for ten years in an expat community in Germany and always thought it would make a great setting for a book if I could find the right story. When I moved back to Britain I read in a newspaper about an audacious and outrageous crime. I did some research and discovered that many people every year fall victim to this type of crime. I wondered whether something similar could happen in a closed community where everyone knows everyone else’s business, or thinks they do. Bingo: I had my story.


What’s your favourite and least favourite thing about writing?

My least favourite thing is the blank sheet of paper at the start of a new project. It really is sheer panic that I might not be able to think of anything to write. But once I’ve got a draft down, I enjoy editing it.

My favourite thing about writing is being able to create my own world. People in it do and say exactly what I want them to. Sometimes real life can be so much harder to navigate. I also absolutely love it when people tell me they’ve read one of my books and liked it. That is a wonderful and humbling privilege.


What’s one book you wish you had written?

There are lots of great books that I admire for their ingenious plots, memorable characters and excellent technique, but I’ve just got to keep on being me and writing what I can, hoping that readers will like it.


Name your 5 favourite books

I’ve got about 30 favourites so I’m picking 5 at random here.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

We are shown (but never told) the brutality of a Stalinist labour camp. For me this is writing brilliance.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This was the first “grown-up” book I read. Until then I’d assumed I wouldn’t be able to understand anything classed as literary fiction. But this is written in plain English and packs a shattering punch. I got it. It opened a new genre to me.

A Meal in Winter by Hubert Mingarelli

Short and stark, this novel considers how ordinary men can commit unspeakable atrocities.

Love, Love Me Do by Mark Haysom

Told from five viewpoints over the course of one day and at times reminiscent of Brighton Rock, it explores loyalty, abandonment and post-war trauma. Serious but also nostalgic, gentle and funny.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson.

I love the Jackson Brodie detective stories and this one is superb. Thinking about the ending – which I didn’t see coming – always puts a big grin on my face.


If you weren’t writing, what other outlet would you be involved in?

School librarian is my day job. I spend my time encouraging children to love books and helping them make the reading choices that work for them. I read a lot of children’s and young adult books. It’s the best job ever.


What’s one thing your readers don’t know about you?

I can’t ride a bicycle.


What’s your next project?

I’ve just completed a crime thriller set at a school reunion. Ten years earlier a girl disappeared at the school leavers’ ball and has never been found. The girl’s father asks one of her school friends to attend the reunion and ask questions. But not all the guests are willing to give answers. It’s told partly in flashback to school days and descends into some dark places.


The novel I’m currently working on is set in a university during freshers’ week. Four girls from widely different backgrounds find themselves sharing a flat in a student hall. One girl leaves after two days, but one of the others, despite fighting her own demons, has a sixth sense that something sinister has happened. (Oh, and she can’t ride a bicycle either.)


I also return now and again to my draft of a gritty comedy set in Scunthorpe in 1983 when a serial killer is disposing of members of a dance troupe.


What’s another thing your readers don’t know about you?

I lived in Scunthorpe in 1983…


Name your 5 favourite movies. 

Despite writing dark crime novels, I like colourful films that make me smile. My all-time favourite is Grease. I also like Hairspray, St Trinian’s, High School Musical 3 (great set piece dances reminiscent of an MGM musical) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


What’s your favourite performance from any movie?

I often think the best performances are the ones that you don’t notice as performances; the actors make the characters seem believable and normal. However, one larger-than-life performance that sticks in my mind is Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Although he wasn’t Roald Dahl’s choice for the part, I thought he brought a subtlety to the role with a quiet, intelligent menace behind the eyes.


What’s your favourite love story? (movie or book)

I’m not a huge fan of love stories but one of my favourite ever books is Precious Bane by Mary Webb, published in 1924. I picked it up when I moved to Shropshire, where Webb lived and set her novels. It’s written in a pretend dialect of nineteenth century country people which takes a bit of getting used to but ultimately works well. Prue is a clever, dutiful, hardworking girl with little prospect of marriage because of her hare lip.   Enter itinerant weaver Kester, a man who doesn’t run with the pack.  I loved the romance between Prue and Kester, two intelligent, compassionate people in a community which doesn’t value either of these qualities.

I’ve only read it once and daren’t return to it in case I ruin the magical memory I have of it.


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