When you think of psychological thrillers, you think of a mystery, dark and menacing—or at least damaged—characters, and maybe a death. Annie Ward’s Beautiful Bad (Park Row) has it all, but even more than that, it has a paradox between these popular thriller aspects and a love story, expertly constructed from the first meeting.

The novel unfolds like a season of “How to Get Away with Murder.” We’re introduced to Maddie, covertly deciding to see a mental health professional. Then a policewoman responds to a 911 call to find what looks like a murder scene, but we have no idea who has been killed. The novel has a dual timeline: one a present-day murder mystery, the second composed with flashbacks to the past, beginning in 2001 when Ian and Maddie meet.

Just like the “Murder” television series, each time we go deeper into Maddie’s past with Jo and Ian, Ward brings us back to the “present” and reminds that something has led to a killing. This story structure keeps the reader on edge in true thriller fashion, never letting us forget that this burgeoning love story may lead to a chilling end. 

In the past, we follow main character Madeline through war-torn Eastern European countries with her best friend Joanna where they meet security guard Ian Wilson. Jo and Maddie’s friendship goes through turmoil while both reveal how they feel about Ian. Even worse, neither of these women truly know who Ian is. As an international security guard, he’s seen more than his share of trauma. As result, while not always obvious in his interactions with others, Ian suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, as well as a heightened sense of paranoia.

The characters in Beautiful Bad are richly painted and blunt with reality. Ward illustrates “the human things” so well. A perfect scene to illustrate her uncanny portrayals of human nature is when Maddie is hiding her online mental health questionnaire from Ian.

“My finger is hovering again, just in case he decides to come have a look at what I’m doing. Just in case I need to click on Facebook and show him the video of cute baby goats jumping on each other’s backs that one of my friends just posted.” We are instantly pulled into the reality of Maddie’s world and feel comfortable—even while we’re still cautious—with the people in it.

Against the backdrop of Balkan states in the middle of war is a complicated love triangle that’s turning into a bomb. Everyone involved will disappoint someone by becoming more intimate with someone else. Ian, Joanna, and Maddie’s friendships and relationships are veiled in ignorance and plausible deniability to maintain the delicate balance among the three. And then there’s bi-polar Fiona, Ian’s girlfriend to consider. Despite war, insanity and turmoil, Maddie and Ian’s love blooms. 

At every page turn, Ward illustrates what it means to be “beautiful” and “bad” at the same time. Throughout the novel, readers should note the juxtaposition between friendship and allegiance, protection and incarceration, and love and co-dependence. Ward uses these juxtapositions to show us that what may look initially beautiful to us can ultimately be very bad. 

Beautiful Bad will be available to purchase March 5, 2019.

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