The Ex-Husband by Karen Hamilton

claustrobic | pacy | distinctive

what it’s all about …

Charlotte and Sam were partners. In life, and in crime. They never stole from anyone who couldn’t afford it. Wealthy clients, luxury cruise ships. It was easy money, and harmless. At least, that’s what Charlotte told herself, until the world caved in on her.

But now, years after she tried to put that past life behind her, it comes rushing back when her estranged ex-husband Sam suddenly goes missing – and someone threatens to expose what they did.

Desperate to escape whoever is tormenting her, Charlotte takes a job as events planner for an engagement party onboard a superyacht in the Caribbean. For a while, her plan seems to have worked, nothing but open ocean and clear skies ahead. Until it becomes clear that she’s no longer a thousand miles away from harm.

Because whoever is behind it all is onboard too. And now there’s nowhere left to run.

PUBLISHED: 19th August 2021
SHELF: Suspense | Thriller
AUTHOR: Karen Hamilton
PUBLISHER: Wildfire Books
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | AudioBook

my review

I’m a sucker for a good thriller, and I have magpie tendencies when it comes to punchy, eye-catching covers, so there was no way I’d miss the opportunity to read Karen Hamilton’s latest novel, The Ex-Husband.  I’m new to the author’s books, but it didn’t take much searching to learn her two previous novels – also both thrillers – have garnered significant praise and great reviews, so I was more than a little gleeful when I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of this hotly anticipated new release.

The cruise-ship setting held the promise of luxury and ever-changing, sun-soaked locations, and I found this proposition rather enticing.  By marooning the characters out at sea – albeit with their every pampered whim tended to in the most sumptuous of situations – the author has effectively created a locked-room mystery. And then she’s significantly heightened the tension with a cast of characters so disagreeable, that I’d rather take the risk of a long, chilly (sharky) swim back to land than spend a moment longer with them.

I loved being out at sea. I took hundreds of photos of the turquoise water as I watched the sun reflect off the waves. Everything looked brighter and shinier than usual… Apart from other cruise ships and yachts, there was ocean as far as I could see. I was cut off from the rest of the world; the rules didn’t apply. It was invigorating. I realised I didn’t want to return to real life. I wanted to stay here, in the fantasy one, with endless buffets and entertainment, where credit-card bills, housework and work commutes didn’t exist.

The Ex-Husband in this case is the most awful of them all … but fortunately he’s missing so we only have to spend any time with him retrospectively, thanks to an intertwined dual timeline plot. It’s very easy to dislike Sam; he’s a manipulative bully, violent, and a cheat … that’s just his romantic relationship credentials.  Professionally, he’s a con man whose covetous deceptions are escalating uncontrollably.  His disappearance occurs fairly early in the book, but by the time it does, we’ve already learned enough about him from his estranged wife, Charlotte, to doubt the veracity of this information.

The truth is that no one who truly knows Sam likes him. The only people who love him don’t know the real him.

Charlotte is the lead character, and the narrator of the entirety of The Ex-Husband.  Reinvention is important to Charlotte; she mentions it quite frequently in her present-day chapters – ‘repaint the picture in my mind’, ‘rewrite the story’, ‘rewrite history’ – and it’s like little needling red flags coaxing me not to take her words at face value. Her voice is distinctive, and it took me a short while to settle into her story, but I have to say the excruciating tension of the opening chapter convinced me that hers was a tale worth listening to.  But at the same time … again, during the very short period of that opening chapter … I immediately felt an aversion to her; like Sam she’s covetous and dishonest, and seemingly without any real contrition for her years of lying and stealing.

This is a bold move by the author … with two key players so impossible to warm to (and soon to be joined by a cast of equally unpleasant individuals) what’s to keep you invested in the story?  Well, that’s where the sublime locations came in; I’ve never been on a cruise, and only ever been on a handful of yachts with some supreme blagging (if I do say so myself) at the International Boat Show, but I have been to the Caribbean, and thanks to the vivid, transportive writing of the author, I could quite easily have been sinking my toes into the warm, pristine white sands of St Lucia all over again; rum cocktail in one hand whilst the other shields my eyes as I drink in the stunning scenery.  I digress … but you get the idea; Karen Hamilton has created psychic luxury travel through her eloquent, richly crafted storytelling. But back to my initial point, this cast of miscreants and cold-shouldered-snobs is a gift that means I’m as intrigued by the motives of Charlotte’s tormentors, as I am by my lack of affinity to the intended victims.  I want to see the blackmailer(s) unmasked, but I welcome the retribution that’s long overdue for Charlotte’s own crimes.

My and Sam’s chickens are coming home to roost and I will have to face whoever or whatever it is alone. It is darkly reassuring, in a twisted way. Living with the subconscious fear of a tap on the shoulder has taken its toll. Even before Sam’s betrayal, I had a nagging, intuitive feeling I would only ever truly get away with things if I worked alone. I must narrow it down, find any links to Sam or Alexandra. Keep an open mind but trust no one. To not just survive, but to thrive, I must rewrite history. I am innocent; Sam is not. I must believe that.”

The Ex-Husband is very much a slow-burner, with the alternating plot line pulling its weight most effectively to draw-out the tension and sustain the book’s page-turner credentials. But there’s a risk with slow-burners; that by eking out the sinister suspense just a little too long the reader works out exactly who the baddie is, stripping away the exquisite ‘stomach-drop’ sensation of a truly unexpected and magnificent twist.  This is my main quibble with the book; yes, there were twists and distractions and revelations but – for me – they were a little too too predictable … that memorable, gasp-inducing punch never really happened. 

I want to make it clear that I’m in the minority in respect of my feelings about the book’s thrills-and-suspense attributes.  Books are so personal and, as readers, our experience with a novel varies wildly … a friend in a local book group once said to me she often wonders if her fellow group members have all read the same book as each other, so disparate are their reviews.  I also want to be very clear that, on the whole, I did enjoy reading The Ex-Husband and I would recommend it to any reader on the lookout for a suspense thriller to lose themselves in this summer … its idyllic, lavish and stylish context provide the escapism we all crave, whilst the undeniably sinister claustrophobia make this a gripping, well-paced page-turner, carefully plotted to deliver a resoundingly neat conclusion.

Thank you to Rosie at Headline / Hachette UK for sending me an advance proof copy of The Ex-Husband, and to NetGalley for approving my request for a Kindle copy … there’s no such thing as too many books!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my review.

If this book sounds like one you’d love to read too, here’s a selection of purchase links:
To support independent local bookshops, click ☞ here
To feed your Waterstones ‘plus’ loyalty card, click ☞ here
And of course, here is the ubiquitous Amazon link

author bio

Karen Hamilton spent her childhood in Angola, Zimbabwe, Belgium and Italy, and developed a love of travel through moving around so much. This led her to a career as a flight attendant, and it was in the air that she thought of the idea for her debut thriller, The Perfect Girlfriend. She has now put down roots in Hampshire to raise her young family with her husband.

Karen is a graduate of the Faber Academy, and a Sunday Times bestselling author. Her debut novel, The Perfect Girlfriend was followed by The Last Wife in 2020. The Ex-Husband is her hotly anticipated third novel.

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