Filler content with homicidal thoughts

Apparently I reviewed this book back in Black Static #5, but have no memory of reading it.

Oh dear! I am getting old it seems.

Allowing for editorial corrections and reviewer afterthoughts, it probably looked a lot like this when it appeared:-

The psychologist as hero is another recent development in crime fiction, as witness the success of TV’s Cracker, with the human psyche just another locked room mystery up for solving. In the mid-nineties Jay Hamilton, the protagonist of The Semantics of Murder (Serpent’s Tail paperback, 250pp, £9.99) by Aifric Campbell, ‘toyed with the idea of creating what might amount to a new literary genre, the invention of a psychoanalyst to rival the crime sleuths’. Sorry Jay, but Jonathan Kellerman for one got there at least five years before you didn’t, unless you want to split hairs about the difference between psychologists and psychoanalysts.

Hamilton has a very cosy life. An American now resident in London, he gets rich treating the psychological problems of wealthy patients and has a nice sideline in writing up their stories as fiction for the bestsellers he puts out under a pseudonym. Except lurking in the background is the memory of the murder of his brother Robert, a chaos mathematician of dazzling ability, who led a secret gay lifestyle, picking up anonymous men for sex. The crime was never solved. Jay, who was staying with him at the time, discovered the body and saw men driving away in a car. When writer Dana Flynn interviews Jay for a biography she is writing about Robert it stirs up memories he’d rather were left alone, of sibling rivalry and sexual misadventures. Simultaneous with this, one of Jay’s patients abducts a child and goes on the run, her actions mirroring the role Jay assigned her in one of his stories: it appears that he is not just recording events, but through inaction allowing them to occur. Slowly Jay’s perfect life starts to unravel.

Campbell took her initial inspiration from the still as yet unsolved murder of philosophy professor Richard Montague in 1971, a specialist in semantics, and the resultant novel is a clever book, one that keeps the reader guessing to the last minute as ever more evidence is laid out on the page. Campbell’s writing is assured, the work of an author who knows when to show and when to tell for maximum effect, bringing her protagonist to life and then slowly altering our perception of him, with the revelation of the professional rivalry that soured relations with his brother, all the petty jealousies and inadequacies that are part of his make-up. Hamilton is not particularly likeable, with his attitudes to women and the way in which he uses his patients’ secrets to further his own career. It seems that he cannot invent things, has no imagination and therefore we should doubt his ability to genuinely empathise. His perfect life is shown to be a sham and beneath the surface he is simply maintaining control, needing only the one event to tip him over the edge.

Aifric Campbell’s book is not so much a murder mystery as case study of a personality in meltdown, what happens when a mental health professional decides to play mind games and, if not as dramatic as the Hannibal Lecter variant, it is undeniably more convincing.

Moral: psychoanalyst, heal thyself.

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