Though Knopf is renowned for publishing literary fiction, it has a long tradition of publishing commercial fiction and crime novels, including by such authors as Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, and Anne Rice, to great success. Knopf believes it has another bestseller in journalist Clémence Michallon’s The Quiet Tenant, a debut novel about a serial killer that it recently acquired.
Knopf publisher Reagan Arthur noted that she and her predecessor, the late Sonny Mehta, bonded years ago over “our shared love of commercial fiction and great crime fiction,” and that crime and genre fiction were an important part of her list when she was at Little, Brown. “I very much want to continue doing this at Knopf,” she said.
Knopf bought North American rights to The Quiet Tenant in June in what Michallon’s agent, Stephen Barbara of Inkwell Management, described as a “lively ‘best bid’ auction.” Knopf senior editor Tim O’Connell called it a “good deal for all parties.” The deal was quickly followed by Little Brown UK’s acquisition of British and Commonwealth rights in a six-figure preempt by publisher Clare Smith. Since then, rights have been sold in more than 25 other territories, with negotiations ongoing in several more.
Barbara, who has known Michallon for two years but has been her agent only since April, described The Quiet Tenant as a “compelling” read. He noted that Inkwell decided to sell foreign rights immediately after selling North American rights, rather than waiting for Frankfurt, because “we felt that it was the right time; the enthusiasm was there.”
The overwhelming response by foreign publishers, Arthur maintained, demonstrates that The Quiet Tenant is “more universal than a straight crime story,” and that it’s not just “an American story.” She added, “What makes this book so special is that it’s less about the horror, and more about the people. With the best of the crime writers, it’s not relentless: there are moments of light. Reality makes it more alive on the page and less horrific, but no less dramatic.”
So how did a New York–based, French-born journalist working for U.K. newspaper the Independent get interested in writing a novel about a serial killer? “I have a strong interest in serial killers who are also family men,” Michallon said. The Quiet Tenant is about Aidan, a charming widower who leads a secret life murdering women. The narration alternates between Rachel, whom Aidan has held prisoner for five years; Emily, with whom he enters into a romantic relationship; and other women and girls in his life—including his young daughter.
Michallon recalled that her interest in serial killers began when she was a teenager and read the French edition of The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule, about Ted Bundy’s killing sprees. She said she was intrigued by “the idea that somebody who had a life, friends, relationships, had this completely separate life. I was interested also in what it was like for those left behind, who knew that person. I wanted to write about a man like this, but he doesn’t get to speak. Only the women around him get to speak.”
Michallon maintained that there is no gratuitous violence in The Quiet Tenant. “A lot of things are hinted at, but we’re not loitering in the gore,” she explained. “It’s also a book about mental violence; to me the psychological violence is the more interesting aspect.”
O’Connell said Michallon “set herself up with a very difficult thing to pull off: a serial killer, to the world the sweetest man ever, but to his captive, he’s a brute. And then you put them in a house with his daughter. That’s a tightrope.”
O’Connell compared The Quiet Tenant to Emma Donoghue’s Room, noting that both novels “have that voice that wraps itself around you and you’re just in with it.” But he also likens The Quiet Tenant to Gone Girl in terms of the power dynamics between the characters and how they shift, and to Girl on a Train, with its use of memory and the pacing. Michallon, he said, “has taken elements of these truly iconic works and kind of blended them together in this rather seamless way.”
Working with Michallon has been “a lot of fun,” O’Connell said, but the waiting is the hardest part: The Quiet Tenant is not due out until early 2023.