A compulsive, disturbingly relevant, twisty and powerful psychological, social-media thriller ...
NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER
LONGLISTED for the Guardian's Not the Booker Prize
'Another dark banger from the Orenda Books stable ... A brilliant, twisty cat-and-mouse book about fandom and obsession' Erin Kelly
'Brilliantly twisty. I loved it' Lisa Jewell
Tom is a successful author, but he's struggling to finish his novel. His main distraction is an online admirer, Evie, who simply won't leave him alone.
Evie is smart, well read and unstable; she lives with her father and her social-media friendships are not only her escape, but everything she has.
When she's hit with a restraining order, her world is turned upside down, and Tom is free to live his life again, to concentrate on writing.
But things aren't really adding up. For Tom is distracted but also addicted to his online relationships, and when they take a darker, more menacing turn, he feels powerless to change things. Because maybe he needs Evie more than he's letting on.
A compulsive, disturbingly relevant, twisty and powerful psychological thriller, The Closer I Get is also a searing commentary on the fragility and insincerity of online relationships, and the danger that can lurk just one 'like' away...
'A gripping ride through the heartlands of need and hurt. Even at his most thrilling, Paul Burston never loses his sense of real pain and suffering' Philip Hensher
'As perfect a thriller as you'll read all year' Caz Frear
'This book will make you rethink your social media obsession. Dangerous from page one, lit by bursts of black humour, ultimately honest about the frailty of ego and the masks we all wear. Terrifically readable' Sarah Hilary
'A sucker-punch of a twist that took my breath away! Absurdly gripping, and enough to unnerve anyone who has ever spent any time online' Angela Clarke
'So good. Such brilliant characters. Great premise and a thrilling read' Nina Pottell, Prima
'Chillingly recognisable. A delicious tour de force' Alex Marwood
'Compelling, creepy and completely believable' Mel McGrath
'Dark, devious and with a growing sense of dread' Neil Broadfoot
'Brilliantly written, tense and compelling' Amanda Jennings
'Dark twisty fiction at its very best' SJI Holliday
'One of the best books you'll read this year' Ed James
'Effortlessly readable, intensely chilling. That ending floored me' Chris Whitaker
'Unsettling. Taut. Menacing. Burston puts the killer into killer twist' Jonathan Harvey
'Witty and insightful' Susie Boyt
'Brilliant, chilling, totally awesome writing' Miranda Dickinson
'An absolute stunner ... with a deliciously twisted ending' Lisa Hall
'The tension is almost unbearable. The twist is gut-wrenching. The book is a masterpiece in sustained suspense and smart literate contemporary horror' Derek Farrell
' Keeps you hooked in with plenty of twists. I suspect it will be a big read this summer' Fiona Sharp
'It's about a gay novelist who becomes the target of an online stalker and is dark, thou
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About the Author
Paul Burston is the author of Shameless, The Black Path (longlisted for the Guardian's Not The Booker Prize), and Lovers & Losers (shortlisted for a Stonewall Award). He was a founding editor of Attitude magazine and has written for the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Times, and Sunday Times. He is the founder and host of London's LGBT+ literary salon Polari and founder and chair of The Polari First Book Prize for new writing.
Read an Excerpt
It was great seeing you today. You probably don't believe me, not after everything that's happened. But it's the truth. I'd never lie to you, Tom. I never have. Not once. I'm not like the others. Sometimes I think I'm the only truly honest person left.
We live in an age of such deceit, don't we? People lie all the time. It's second nature to them. Everyone is so afraid of appearing stupid, or saying the wrong thing and offending someone. Everyone's so keen to make a good impression – virtue signalling and boasting about their perfect lives on Facebook, posting artfully posed selfies and filtered photos of their dinner on Instagram. Social media has made liars of us all.
Not me, though. If anything, I'm too honest for my own good. Maybe if I'd learned to hold my tongue more, we wouldn't be in this mess. But then I wouldn't have been true to myself. I can't change the way I am, Tom. Even for you. Even if there's a price to pay.
You used to admire my honesty. 'Refreshing' you said. 'A free thinker'. Did you change your mind? Or were you humouring me when you said those things? I'd hate to think that you lied to me from the outset. That would make you a hypocrite, my darling.
I probably shouldn't tell you this. I probably shouldn't be writing to you at all. But before we go any further and our words are twisted and taken out of context, I want to make one thing clear: I don't blame you. Honestly. I don't think you knew what you were getting yourself into. I don't think either of us did. Maybe if we had, we'd have done things differently.
But life's not like that. You don't wake up one morning knowing that today's the day you'll meet the person who'll change your life forever. You don't go into these things with your eyes wide open. They just sort of creep up on you. And that's how it was with us.
'We don't decide when we fall in love. We don't choose it. It chooses us. We have no more control over it than we have control over the weather.'
Do you recognise those words? You ought to, because you wrote them. That's a direct quote from your second novel. I wonder if you knew then how true those words were, or if you were just trying them on for size, the way some writers do. I suppose it's what literary critics would call style. I've never been a big fan of style, myself. I prefer my writers to say what they mean and mean what they say. But as I think we've established, I'm not your average reader.
I remember the night we first met. I don't wear makeup as a rule, but I'd made a special effort that night – eyeliner, lipstick, a bit of blush. It's not every day a girl gets to meet the man she's admired from afar. I remember the crisp white shirt you wore and the slightly cocky, slightly nervous smile when you walked into the crowded bookshop. I remember thinking that your author photo didn't do you justice, that you were far better-looking in the flesh. Never did I imagine that this would be the start of something life-changing. I'd only come to hear you speak and get my book signed. Emotional attachments were the last thing on my mind.
Contrary to what you might think, I didn't plan any of what happened after. Grand passions really aren't my thing. I'm not one of those women who sit around dreaming of being swept off their feet. I've never needed a man to complete me. Not like my mother. She was never happy unless she had a room full of male admirers, yet never tired of boasting about her feminist credentials. But we both know what hypocrites feminists can be.
In fact, that was one of the first things we agreed on, that night at the bookshop when I stayed behind after the crowds had dwindled. Some dreary woman was complaining about the lack of positive female role models in your books, as if your first responsibility as a novelist isn't to tell a good story but is to make her feel validated.
I could see you needed rescuing, so I spoke up. 'That's the trouble with certain kinds of feminists. What they lack in imagination, they make up for in self-righteousness.'
You feigned shock. 'And what kind of feminist are you?'
'The recovering kind,' I replied, and you laughed, flashing those perfect white teeth of yours.
You asked my name and I handed you my business card.
'Evie,' you said. 'That's a pretty name.'
I watched you slide the card into your breast pocket. Then you took my book and signed it: 'To Evie, a kindred spirit. Best wishes, Tom Hunter'.
Imagine: me and Tom Hunter – kindred spirits. If only you'd known how thrilled I was. But I hid it well. I've always been good at hiding things.
And that was just the beginning. I'd been following you on Twitter for a year by then. But despite tagging you in several posts that praised your work, you hadn't followed me back. Clearly you had a change of heart that night. Did you check my profile before you went to sleep? Did you lie awake, counting down the hours until you made your next move? Because at 6.12 a.m. the next morning, there it was – a notification informing me that you were now following me on Twitter.
I tried not to read too much into it. But I couldn't help myself. 6.12 a.m. is an intimate time to be expressing an interest in someone. Most of us are barely awake at such an early hour. I pictured you lying in bed, wiping the sleep from your eyes and looking at your phone, already thinking of me. It's no wonder my mind was racing. A girl could be forgiven for thinking you had designs on her. And as this girl soon discovered, she wasn't wrong.
But back to today. I spotted you long before you saw me. You were climbing out of a black cab. You had the collar of your jacket turned up and a red scarf tied loosely around your neck. You looked good. A little tired around the eyes perhaps, but I suppose that's only to be expected. It can't have been easy for you, keeping up appearances all this time. No wonder the strain is starting to show.
I assume that was her with you. Emma Norton. The one I'm obliged to refer to as 'the other woman'. I must say she looks nothing like her profile pic. She's obviously not a natural blonde – not like me. Dad says my hair is the colour of honey. The sweetness starts at the top of my head and runs through me like letters through a stick of rock.
Was Emma the reason you blanked me today? I won't pretend I wasn't hurt by that. My lawyer said I shouldn't talk to you. But we're both adults – we can still be civil to one another. And just because someone studied law, it doesn't mean they're always right. I've had injury lawyers cold calling me about car accidents that never happened. That's how much faith I have in the legal profession. Remember when Morrissey wrote that song describing lawyers as liars? As a fellow fan, I'm sure you'll agree that he had a point.
Listening to all the legal arguments today, I was struck by a number of things. One: what a mess we've made for ourselves! Two: what clever bastards those lawyers are. They twist everything, don't they? And three: wouldn't it be easier if we just sorted this out between ourselves?
I know we tried before, that night I waited for you outside your flat. Maybe if you'd invited me in instead of freaking out and calling the police, we could have resolved our differences there and then. We still could. It's not too late. Why make this any harder than it needs to be? I'm willing to forgive and forget if you are.
Promise me you'll think about it. Sleep on it and email me in the morning. And if I don't hear from you, at least I'll know where I stand. And I'll see you tomorrow in court.
Yours EvieCHAPTER 2
EIGHT MONTHS EARLIER
'I'm a writer,' Tom said. 'I write novels.'
This was usually the point at which people asked 'Anything I'd have read?' For most of the authors Tom knew, the honest answer would be 'Probably not'. But he was one of the lucky ones. His first novel had been an international bestseller. Rights were sold in forty countries. There was even a film adaptation starring Ryan Gosling, which ensured that while Tom Hunter wasn't exactly a household name, he did enjoy a certain amount of brand recognition. He also had a level of financial security rare among his peers, and a flat overlooking the river in an area of Vauxhall largely populated by hedge-fund managers.
Success had come easily to Tom. Too easily, his detractors might have said – and there were plenty of those. The critics hadn't been kind about his second novel, and it had struggled to repeat the success of his first. Truth be told, he was still struggling – though this was something he was barely willing to admit to himself, let alone anyone else.
None of which was of the slightest interest to the woman looking at him from behind the reinforced glass partition. 'And you're here to give a statement?' she said. 'Perhaps you could start by telling me what happened?'
Tom had thought about this a lot on his way to the police station. Where to begin? What to say? He'd given a brief account to the two officers who visited his flat three days ago. But this was more serious. This woman was a detective. What he said now would determine what further action, if any, was taken. He'd never given a police statement before. He didn't know what was expected.
He loosened his shirt collar and leaned forwards in his plastic chair. 'I went through this with the police on Tuesday.'
'I know. But if you wouldn't mind going over it again, just so I'm clear.'
Was this a test, Tom wondered – a way of checking whether he had his story straight?
'I'm being harassed,' he said.
The detective nodded. 'I'm aware of the nature of your complaint. The person you say is harassing you – is this someone you know?'
'I'm sorry, I don't understand.'
'It's someone I met online,' Tom explained. 'A woman, on Twitter.'
The detective gave him a look which suggested that social media wasn't her favourite topic of conversation. Tom wondered how much police time was wasted investigating complaints made about comments posted on Facebook or shared on Twitter. Quite a few, he imagined. He was aware, also, that Detective Inspector Sue Grant worked for the hate-crime unit, and was probably used to dealing with cases far more serious than this. Online harassment was one thing. But it was nothing compared to a man who'd been queer-bashed or a woman whose husband was using her as a punch bag.
'That's where it began,' he said, fidgeting in his chair. 'But pretty soon it started spilling over into other areas of my life – emails, blogs, comments posted on Amazon and various online forums.'
'And you've never actually met this person?'
'No. Yes. Kind of.'
The detective gave him a quizzical look. 'Well, which is it?'
'We met once, I think. At a book signing.' Tom smiled modestly. 'I do a lot of book signings.'
'And do you recall meeting her at this book signing?'
'Vaguely. I meet so many people. And it was quite some time ago.'
'How long ago exactly?'
Tom thought for a moment. 'About a year.'
The detective looked surprised. 'This has been going on for a whole year?'
'More or less.'
'Why didn't you report it earlier?'
Of course, he'd known that she would ask him this. He'd been going over it in his head since he made the initial phone call to the police, trying to think of how best to explain himself. 'I thought I could handle it. I thought she'd lose interest. And to be perfectly honest, I was rather embarrassed.'
He shrugged. 'A man being bullied by a woman – it's a bit pathetic, isn't it?'
The detective looked at him. 'Men can be victims, too. Domestic abuse, harassment – it can happen to anyone.'
'That's good to hear,' Tom said, then quickly corrected himself. 'I mean, it's good that you take this stuff seriously, Detective.'
'We take all crime seriously.'
Tom smiled and nodded. 'Yes, of course.'
The detective tapped at the keyboard on the desk between them, rolled her eyes and rose from her seat. 'I'm afraid we're having a few problems with our computer system. So, if you'd like to follow me, we can go and make a start on your statement.'
She instructed the officer at the reception desk to buzz Tom through, and escorted him into the interior of the police station, opening each successive door with a swipe of her security pass. As they waited for the lift, Tom's eyes were drawn to a poster on the wall. A woman's bruised and battered face stared back at him. 'Domestic violence is a crime', the text stated. 'Report it!' Not for the first time, he wondered if he was doing the right thing.
Then he recalled Emma's stern words on Tuesday evening: 'She won't stop, Tom. She's made that perfectly clear. And for all we know she could be dangerous. She's already affecting your health. You have to do something now, before it gets any worse.'
It was Emma who urged him to call the police and waited with him until they arrived. She'd offered to accompany him tonight, too, but Tom had insisted that it really wasn't necessary. There was no way of knowing how long this would take. Some things he was better left doing alone.
The lift groaned as the doors closed, prompting a sharp spike of anxiety. Tom wasn't good with lifts at the best of times – a hangover from the days when he first moved to London and lived on the ninth floor of a tower block in Kennington, where he once found himself trapped in the lift for over an hour. At least this lift didn't smell of urine, although there was the familiar whiff of fast food. He wondered about the eating habits of the woman standing next to him. She caught his eye and he quickly averted his gaze.
The lift stopped on the third floor, where she led him along a windowless corridor with harsh strip lighting and into a large open-plan room with carpet the colour of weak tea and rows of desks and computer terminals, most of them unoccupied. As they entered the room, the detective exchanged greetings with a couple of uniformed officers and a tall, stern-looking man in plain clothes with his shirt sleeves rolled up – her sergeant, she explained in a hushed voice.
She led Tom over to an empty desk, pulled up an extra chair for him to sit on and took out her pocketbook. 'Perhaps you could start by telling me what you know about this woman ...' she checked her notes '... Evie?'
Tom nodded. 'Eve Stokes. She calls herself Evie.'
'When did you first become aware of her?'
'She's someone who started following me on Twitter.'
'And you said this was about a year ago?'
Tom shrugged. 'More or less. It's hard to be exact. I have a lot of Twitter followers.'
'I see. What else?'
'She started by tweeting me, saying she was a big fan of my work. She has a blog where she writes about books. She's clearly educated and often quite insightful. But there's a lot of anger and frustration there. Some of her blogs are quite extreme.'
'Extreme in what way?'
'There's a lot of upper-case invective.'
The detective looked at him blankly.
'She uses capital letters a lot, for emphasis. And she can be quite vicious. She writes like a disaffected teenager who's read a few books on literary criticism, but she's in her thirties. She clearly hasn't done as well in life as she thinks she ought to have, which is probably why she spends so much time on Twitter, sniping at newspaper columnists and other writers. She lives in East Dulwich with her father. He's not very well, or so she says.'
The detective raised an eyebrow. 'For someone you've barely met, you seem to know rather a lot about her.'
Tom smiled grimly. 'Well, you know what they say – know your enemy.'
'I thought you said she was a fan.'
'She was, yes. But fandom is a funny thing. It's never really about you – it's really about them. Fan is short for fanatic, you know.'
The detective gave him a look that said she wasn't born yesterday.
'It really is a form of fanaticism,' Tom continued. 'Almost a disorder in some cases. Certainly so in hers. That's the thing with social media. All sorts of people have direct access to you. And when you're in the public eye ...' He paused and gave a modest smile. 'When you're known, even in a small way, you're bound to attract a few oddballs. Twitter can be a real vipers' nest at times. But it's good for book sales, so ...'
'And you run your Twitter account yourself?' the detective interjected.
'You don't have someone who could do it for you?'
'I can't afford staff.'
'But presumably your publisher can?'
Tom coughed. 'I'm between publishers at the moment.'
'A friend, then?'
'There's nobody I'd really trust to do it properly. It's a lot to ask of someone.'
'But it would give you a break. Sometimes these things die down when the person realises they're not getting through.'
Tom shrugged. 'If only. If you ask me, she needs sectioning.'
'A person can only be detained under The Mental Health Act if they're deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others.' The detective consulted her notes. 'You say you met Ms Stokes at your book signing. Is that the only time you've seen her in person?'
Tom thought for a moment. 'There was one other occasion – at the farmers' market at Oval. At the time I put it down to coincidence. Now I'm not so sure.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Closer I Get"
Copyright © 2019 Paul Burston.
Excerpted by permission of Orenda Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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