Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #5 as part of a feature on crime fiction:-
Horror fiction has always had a ‘special relationship’ with the crime and thriller genres. Many critics regard horror maestro Poe as the creator of the private detective subgenre, while other old masters, such as Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins, have had a foot in both camps. In more modern times, with the emergence of the ‘forensics school’ of crime fiction, scenes that were once the preserve of Baron Frankenstein’s laboratory have become mainstream entertainment courtesy of TV programmes like CSI and Silent Witness.
Simon Beckett’s Written in Bone (Bantam Books paperback, 496pp, £6.99) is a good example of the forensics school. On the remote Hebridean island of Runa a woman’s body, entirely consumed by fire except for the feet and one hand, has been discovered in an isolated crofter’s cottage. The authorities would be happy to write this off as an accident, but forensic anthropologist David Hunter finds evidence of foul play and suspicion is cast on the island’s population of two hundred souls. Before help can arrive from the mainland a storm cuts off the island, stranding Hunter in a hostile community with a ruthless killer on the loose and his only allies a drunken police sergeant, who is more hindrance than help, an inexperienced constable and a retired detective inspector. And that’s only the start of his troubles, as Runa is torn apart by the fallout from the original crime.
Beckett gives us a book in which the technical aspects of forensics work never sound less than convincing, through the person of Hunter showing off his research. And by stranding his expert on an isolated island Beckett obliges Hunter to adopt a hands on, old style approach instead of the brand spanking new gadget of the week that has become the S.O.P. of the CSI franchise, and this makes the story more involving for the reader. Of course, you’d need a genuine forensic anthropologist to confirm the science is all kosher, but from this layman’s perspective the wealth of detail is compelling.
Similarly, the picture of a small and inward looking community is well drawn, with some engaging character studies – ‘laird’ Strachan and his beautiful wife Grace, ambitious reporter Maggie, love struck teacher Cameron, the strikingly competent former cop Brody, to name just a few. Hunter, with his own tangled personal life and relentless digging for the truth, is just the loose cannon to stir things up and overturn the Runa applecart, and he does so with panache. Always a page turner, the book catches fire early on and that fire becomes a roaring blaze in the last fifty pages, as Beckett hits us with first one plot twist and then another, with Hunter’s life on the line in a final throw of the dice. It’s a tour de force finale to a book that never lost my interest and I look forward to reading more by Simon Beckett.
Moral: Scotland is nice this time of year, but you might want to stay away from the islands.
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.
The Final Days (William Heinemann hardback, 452pp, £10) by Alex Chance also has a psychologist as its main protagonist, but that’s as far as the resemblance to Semantics goes. If you were to stand these books in a police line-up, then Days is the one an eye witness would be most likely to finger as the thriller in the pack.
Karen Wiley’s life is in turmoil. She’s given up her high paid job in television to practice as a psychologist/therapist in San Francisco. Her marriage has broken down, she is not quite sure where she stands with the ex, her eleven year old daughter is a troubled child, and back of all these problems is the guilt she feels at the murder of her sister by a killer when they were both children. Then Karen receives a mysterious note, written in a child’s hand and calling on her for help. Similar notes follow and Karen contacts the police, who regard it all as a hoax, until a body part turns up in the mail. Meanwhile in Canaan, Utah, police chief Ella McCullers is heading up the hunt for a missing girl and as the plot unrolls it appears that the two events are related, and both stretch back more than thirty years to a local cult, The Church of the Final Days, and its tyrannical minister. Karen Wiley has become the target of a ruthless serial killer, one who likes to play games with his victims.
Reading this is like watching somebody assemble a jigsaw puzzle. At first it seems like a hopeless mess and the longer the story goes on the more convoluted things become, with such disparate elements as a phonebook obsessed psychopath, a gravestone with Karen’s name on it, an internet stalker and thirty year old texts thrown up by the narrative. Then, when it seems things are going to completely unravel, Chance shows his hand and the pattern emerges, so that you’re left thoroughly bemused and won over by his ingenious plotting.
The writing is fast paced and elegant, a pared down style that’s ideal for a book you read primarily for the story rather than the prose. Chance’s characters are vividly drawn and engaging, with the precocious daughter Jen an especial delight, and the up and down relationship between her parents adding a family frisson to the plot, while Karen’s personal history of loss is yet another turn of the screw. The one exception is private investigator Blake, who didn’t seem entirely credible to me, a bit too much of a good thing, like a detective off the TV, with all his foibles, chequered back story and the expertise at his fingertips. More like Magnum PI, when you were expecting Dirty Harry.
With this sort of book the bad guy is an essential component, and Chance creates a memorable one, a psychopath who is into playing games with his victims, an obsessive personality made all the more scary by the lengths he will go to in gratifying his desires, and on that score the book has plenty of moments that come with a ‘not for the squeamish or faint hearted’ label. The reasons for his being as he is are rooted in a childhood spent with The Church of the Final Days, and the section in which Chance sketches in this bit of the back story is one of the most chilling, a detailed dissection of tyranny masquerading as righteousness. It’s the spinal column of a book that engages the attention completely and kept me turning the pages at a rate of knots, one of those fictions for which the phrase ‘edge of the seat’ was coined.
Moral: cults can screw up your life, even if you don’t belong to them.
(TO BE CONTINUED)