The so-called 'frenemy' thriller is in vogue at the moment. Yet the sub-genre – which takes as its starting point an exploration of the underlying ambiguities and nasty complexes that lie behind the happiest of friendships – is nothing new. What else are Othello, Emma, David Copperfield and The Portrait of a Lady but studies in the betrayal of or by a best friend?
The Faithful Couple by Man Booker-shortlisted author AD Miller is the latest such work. The novel follows the story of two young heterosexual Englishmen, Neil and Adam, over 18 years from 1993 to 2011. The book takes its title from two giant sequoia trees that the two friends see in Yosemite National Park. "They only existed together, in their rivalrous embrace," Miller writes.
From their first meeting – at a hostel in San Diego – there is something homoerotic about the friendship. When Neil hooks up with Rose, Adam feels jealous – not that his friend has managed to lure the attractive girl into his tent, but of Rose herself. "She had come between them," Miller writes. "She had taken away his friend."
Adam is told by Rose's father that she is still in high school, but Adam chooses not to pass on this vital piece of information to Neil, an omission that has devastating consequences for their friendship. Miller – whose first novel Snowdrops was a bestseller – is an expert at exploring the moral consequences of inaction. Guilt, regret, and repression haunt the novel like a noxious gas. Initially, the two friends think it best – in true male style – not to talk about what happened with Rose. "They didn't register the pivot in their lives, as you might notice a scratch without anticipating the infection."
Although the plot may be a simple one – this is not a book full of gimmicky twists and turns – Miller crafts his story with precision. The style is not pretentious, but neither is it flat. Indeed, some of the novelist's imagery is startling and disturbing. A lift is likened to a sarcophagus; the sound of foxes at night in London is described as "disconcertingly human, long hyperventilating shrieks, like a passer-by stumbling upon a corpse"; and a man's bony hand is compared to the carcass of a battery chicken.
Miller also has a particular talent for exploring the dehumanising effects of technology, showing how the devices that were designed to liberate us often bring about a kind of slow emotional death. He is also brilliant on the intersection of class and money, at one point describing the interior of a house belonging to a member of the super rich as "over-housekept", as scoured and disinfected as a covered-up murder scene.
There may be no murder in this novel, but nevertheless it oozes with tension. Patricia Highsmith – author of stylish "frenemy" thrillers such as The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers on a Train – always wanted to try to write a suspense novel that did not feature a murder. I can safely bet that Highsmith would have admired and loved this book in equal measure.
Andrew Wilson's latest book, 'Alexander McQueen: Blood Beneath the Skin' (Simon & Schuster), is out now