Filler content with criminal behaviour – Part 2

Further to Tuesday’s post, three more reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #5 as part of a feature on crime fiction:-

CRIMINAL BEHAVIOUR (continued)

Will Lavender’s Obedience (Macmillan hardback, 352pp, £12.99) is set on the campus of Winchester University, Indiana. Professor Williams comes with a somewhat dubious reputation, having been accused of plagiarism in the past, and his teaching methods for Logic and Reasoning are unorthodox to say the least. He tells the class that a young woman has been abducted and they must find her before the end of term using logical deduction or she will be killed, subsequently nudging them on with e-mail infodumps and classroom discussions. The fictional case is based on a real life exemplar from a number of years back, and three students – Mary, Brian and Dennis – get drawn into the investigation to the point of obsession, with the line between fact and fiction becoming blurred. As more facts are revealed and strangers intervene to drive them in different directions, the students suspect that it is really the original crime they are being challenged to solve, and that Professor Williams is either the killer or knows who is.

It’s hard to know what to say about Obedience. Karin Slaughter blurbs the book and avows that it ‘explores the dark side of academia, where classrooms are dangerous and paranoia abounds’, which is true in as far as it goes, as is another claim that the book is about the abuse of authority (Winchester’s Dean was an associate of Stanley Milgrom, famous for his obedience to authority experiments), but its execution is fatally flawed. Initially the set-up drew me in and for a long time it kept me intrigued, with fascinating twists and believable characters. But as I read on I began to feel increasingly uneasy about the direction it was taking, wondering how the author could tie up all these plot strands and make it in the least bit credible. The answer I’m afraid, is he couldn’t. Frankly, the reveal when it comes is absurd.

But, of course, reviewers are not supposed to give away the ending, so let’s just say it’s the kind of twist that gives all those ‘I woke up and it was only a dream’ resolutions a modicum of respectability. Which, in a way, is a pity as serious themes are being dealt with here and they deserved a serious denouement, rather than one that simply doesn’t ring true.

Moral: Milgrom might have been a genius, but that don’t mean he was a nice guy.

Out of a Clear Sky (Macmillan hardback, 294pp, £12.99) by Sally Hinchcliffe opens with Manda Brooks looking down at the body of the man she has just pushed off a Scottish mountainside and waiting to see if two ravens will peck out his eyes. It’s certainly an attention grabber, and in the wake of this scene we get all the events that led up to it.

Manda got into bird watching through boyfriend Gareth, but when he left her for somebody else Manda found herself isolated, not just from Gareth but from all their old friends. The exception was Tom, who still kept in touch and took her for the occasional day out, who appears to be attracted to her though Manda doesn’t think she can return his feelings. Then there is David, a young bird watcher who keeps turning up at the same places as her and seems to think she should be interested. There are attacks on the website she maintains for the bird watcher group and Manda’s career goes into meltdown as these distractions take their toll. Eventually she decides to walk out on her life and set off on a bird watching tour of the British Isles, only it seems that her troubles are not quite so easily shrugged off, and neither is the stalker intent on making her life a misery.

Hinchcliffe’s first novel is a cleverly pitched psychological thriller in which you can never tell if the narrator is to be relied on or not. Manda has problems that go back to her teenage years, when she was alone with her ailing mother who ended up falling down a steep flight of steps, and Manda’s father accused her of matricide. This understandably left Manda with a lot of unresolved issues, not least with her father, and a burden of guilt. There is the suggestion that she is repeating the behaviour of her youth, though actually she only shouted at her mother, or at least that is her recollection (but what really happened?). Events of the past and present inform each other, and we’re never certain of Manda’s culpability, whether she is the guilty party in all this or unwitting cat’s paw of somebody else.

Enriching the story are the elements having to do with bird watching, a hobby that for most of the well drawn characters has become a borderline obsession. Sky fleshes this out with a wealth of incidental detail and insight into the insular world of twitchers, constructing a compelling portrait of this group and its mindset, their concerns and rivalries. And Hinchcliffe reinforces this by naming each chapter after a bird, then hinting at its characteristics in the text. The use of first person and almost detached style of the writing works very well, adds an up close and personal dimension that makes it easy to get drawn into Manda’s life, to feel for her pain as all the things that mean so much to her are taken away. The end result is a compelling story, one that offers a new slant on familiar territory and delivers a gratifyingly ambiguous resolution. Recommended.

Moral: don’t get romantically involved with people who twitch.

Steve Mosby is the only one of these writers with whose work I am familiar. Fourth novel Cry for Help (Orion paperback, 320pp, £9.99) lacks the invention and chutzpah of the previous book by him that I’ve read, The Third Person, but has distinctive merits of its own. However we’re getting ahead of ourselves, delivering a judge’s summation to the jury before the case has been heard.

A serial killer is breaking into young women’s homes and tying them to their beds, then leaving his victims to die of dehydration while he keeps their friends and family in the loop through means of e-mails and text messages. Several of the victims are connected to Dave Lewis, a stage magician and scourge of fraudulent mediums. He has become, in police parlance, ‘a person of interest’. When his old girlfriend Tori Edmonds is abducted, the killer drags Dave into a weird mind game, one designed both to frame him for the crimes and bring home to Dave his personal shortcomings as a friend. The challenge for Dave is to save both Tori and himself, but then things get further complicated by a threat to his current girlfriend Sarah and the involvement of a career criminal with an agenda of his own.

Mosby’s ingenuity here seems to be mostly focused on the plot. He keeps his eye on the main chance while throwing up a whole shoal of red herrings to distract the reader, such as having Dave’s best friend in the frame for the murders and the way in which the police can’t see a wrong tree without they bark up it. Dave is a likable protagonist, a good friend who nevertheless always feels that he is not doing enough and with a terrible tragedy in his past, while the other characters are just as finely drawn, especially police detective Sam Currie, whose personal circumstances lead him to get a little too invested in the case. Things such as Dave’s interest in mediums and sleight of hand tricks add depth to both his character and the plot, while Mosby is excellent in depicting the relationship between Dave and Sarah, showing how love can grow in such a short time and doing so realistically.

It’s with the bad guys that things get a little over complicated. The killer’s modus operandi has echoes of the serial killer from the Saw film franchise in the way that his depredations are meant to teach people a lesson. The same technology that keeps us all constantly in touch enables him to get away with his crimes, and he wants to instruct us in how wrong we are to accept such ersatz communication in lieu of more genuine and personal forms of contact. It’s a novel twist, but the reason given, the psychological grounding for the killer’s behaviour seems rather tenuous. And Mosby achieves his effects by blindsiding the reader, keeping the true identity of two major characters carefully hidden, even when it comes to exposing their thoughts, a ploy that adds a touch of artificiality. Cry for Help has some valuable points to make about society’s direction, all wrapped up in a tense story, and I enjoyed the book very much, but I’m not quite sure if I believed in it.

Moral: it’s good to text, but better to visit.

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