Three reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #63:-
With the dividing line between the genre of horror and thriller growing ever more blurred in the age of John Connolly, Sarah Pinborough, and Michael Marshall, let’s step outside our discomfort zone for a moment and take a look at three titles from the right side of the mean streets.
FIND ME (Head of Zeus pb, 400pp, £7.99) by J. S. Monroe is a clever, twisty story that plays as many games with the reader as it does the characters involved in the narrative.
Five years ago, distressed by the death of her father, Rosa walks to the end of Cromer pier and jumps into the sea. Her body is never found. Boyfriend Jar keeps imagining that he sees her, suffering from what his therapist describes as “post-bereavement hallucinations”, but a part of him doesn’t really believe that Rosa is dead. And then Rosa’s aunt Amy gives him an encrypted file she discovered on a family computer, one that contains Rosa’s diary, and Jar starts to read her account of the events that led up to her death, which hints at something far more ominous. Paranoia kicking in, Jar believes that people are following him and the police are displaying an interest in the diary. Something is very wrong, with mysterious emails and texts leading him to the truth.
J. S. Monroe is a pen name of author Jon Stock, who made his reputation writing spy novels, and although “psychological thriller” is a more accurate label, there is more than a hint of espionage to the back story of Find Me. What especially intrigued me about the book, was that several of its pivotal events were set in my native Norfolk, and I even had plans to read it while on a trip to the seaside town of Cromer, though that didn’t come off. I am however happy to confirm that the author’s local knowledge is spot on, with the places in which the story is set, at least as regards Norfolk, portrayed on the page with vividness and accuracy.
With alternating third person accounts of Jar’s activities and extracts from Rosa’s diary drip fed to the reader, the narrative sets up a ferocious pace, along the way giving us a comprehensive picture of what took place in the past, events that are relevant to what is taking place in the present. The account of Rosa and Jar’s meeting and their time together at university in Cambridge is splendidly evocative for its depiction of young love burgeoning, but at the same time carefully seeding the text with the clues Jar needs to make sense of Rosa’s absence. And at the same time, it’s easy to see how Jar develops such a sense of paranoia, believing even that his therapist is involved in some far reaching conspiracy. The book’s ultimate revelations, combining literary creation with the manipulation of human behaviour, are masterfully done, presenting us with a compelling portrait of evil, a true monster in human form, somebody quite detached from the morality of what he is doing.
I do have some serious reservations. There’s a red herring to do with the therapist that felt completely contrived and unnecessary, and I have issues of credibility to do with the actions of the police, though I can’t elaborate on that comment without going into spoiler territory. Similarly, given the intentions of the bad guys, the time scale of the book seems somewhat stretched, and whenever the trail appears to have gone cold, either a computer hacker and/or the dark web are conveniently on hand to dispense plot coupons and jump start things again.
Overall though, such reservations didn’t detract from my enjoyment of an ingenious story, written with verve and humour (most courtesy of Jar’s banter with friend and workmate Carl), and with some moments of genuine nastiness/horror including animal abuse to stop anyone thinking that it’s just an outing to the seaside. I liked it very much.
Sophie McKenzie made her reputation writing books for children and teenagers, before turning her hand to crime fiction in 2013 with Richard & Judy Book Club pick Close My Eyes. THE BLACK SHEEP (Simon & Schuster pb, 488pp, £7.99), her latest crime novel, is the story of Fran, who has always felt herself to be the odd one out in her family, the one who doesn’t subscribe to the evangelical beliefs that seem to drive many of their actions. Nonetheless when Caspian, her husband and the father of Ruby and Rufus, is stabbed to death in a seemingly random attack, it is Fran’s family who provide her with the support she needs. One year on and still grieving, at a memorial service for her husband Fran is approached by a man who claims to have met Caspian at a conference before his death and to have information that suggests somebody close to Fran might have been responsible for his murder. Almost against her will and with no idea who she can trust (perhaps least of all her informant Harry, who has his own agenda), Fran digs into the family past and follows a trail of clues that lead to the horrific truth about what happened to Caspian.
While undeniably a thriller, with the prying around in old houses, the wealth of family scandals swept under the rug, and the sense of a powerful, clandestine organisation at work, the book has about it the feel of a mock-Gothic, an impression confirmed by the gleefully over the top ending. The dark side of Catholicism and evangelical religion is put under the spotlight, taking in such contemporary themes as those who are so opposed to abortion they believe violence against doctors is justified. But while such themes are touched on, they are done so only in passing and as a way to propel the plot and serve the reader with the red herrings, and I never really got the feel that McKenzie intended to critique fundamentalism or make any particular point about the morality of abortion. She writes well, generating a considerable pace and shifting between various viewpoint characters with ease, a device that allows her to impart vital information without destroying the mystery of the piece, though it does permit the canny reader to get a sense of who the real villain will turn out to be long before the final page and inevitable reveal.
As with the Monroe, I had some reservations, mostly to do with character motivation.
Fran seemed to accept the possibility of her family’s involvement a little too easily, and the absence of Caspian’s family from her life seemed strange, albeit the events of the book take place over a short period of time so that’s not completely implausible. Also I was a bit annoyed at her failure to check out Harry, and could have done without the romantic involvement between them. My biggest problem had to do with the killer’s reluctance to dispose of one member of the cast, which seemed both out of character and simply a plot convenience. Overall though this was a fast paced and engaging read, a pleasant and undemanding way to pass a few hours (ideal for a long bus journey, which was the circumstance in which I read it), but nothing that I am going to remember once the dust has settled.
We’re a lot closer to the horror heartlands with evocatively titled FINAL GIRLS (Ebury Press pb, 356pp, £7.99), the first novel published under the pseudonym Riley Sager (the author has form under another name), which has garnered praise from no lesser individual than Stephen King.
Years ago Quincy escaped from Pine Cottage, the only survivor of the kind of massacre that takes place in just about every third horror film you see, but very rarely in real life. With support from Coop, the police officer who saved her life, and lawyer husband Jeff, Quincy has gone on to make a life for herself, carving out a career as a cooking blogger, but she is still haunted by the events of the past, made all the more traumatic because she can’t actually recall all the details of what took place, something picked up on by the detectives who investigated the killings at the time. The media has labelled Quincy, and the survivors of two other spree killings – Lisa and Sam – the Final Girls. Lisa has achieved a certain notoriety by writing about what happened to her, while Sam has disappeared off the radar completely. Then Lisa dies in mysterious circumstances and Sam turns up on Quincy’s doorstep, claiming they are both in danger. Not knowing who to trust, Quincy finds herself adrift in a world of shifting uncertainties, and her only hope lies in unlocking her memory of the events that took place all those years ago.
This is a book that picks up on one of the archetypal figures of the horror genre, that of the Final Girl, and uses it as the kicking off point for a no-holds barred thriller, albeit one with plenty of horror grace notes along the way. Sager is superb at depicting Quincy’s life, especially the way in which cooking has become so important to her, and the mechanisms she has developed to cope with what happened to her. The other people in her life are equally well drawn, each with their individual traits – straitlaced Jeff, caring Coop, and the shifty and untrustworthy Sam. Sam’s arrival turns everything upside down in Quincy’s life and forces her to confront the things she has been repressing all these years, and at the same time it turns out to be a form of empowerment, as she joins with Sam in late night escapades in which the hunted become the hunters, making us wonder exactly what Quincy is really capable of and what she is blocking from the night of the slaughter.
In between the main narrative clicks, we get flashbacks to what happened at Pine Cottage, filling in the back story and making us realise Quincy had a lot of emotional issues going on at the time. The violence of the end game is as horrific and repellent as we might expect given what happened, but at the same time there’s an almost comforting familiarity to the events for horror aficionados, like course work for Slasher Films 101, the true originality and value of the book residing in the structure Sager erects around the slaughter, rather than in the wet work itself. The final resolution of the story is cleverly done, even if with hindsight it feels a bit contrived in the way that Sager doles out the information. Along the way there are plenty of red herrings, with nobody quite who they seem, least of all the killer lurking in the shadows. Beautifully paced and as twisty as a twisty thing covered in maple syrup, this was a book that was gripping and thoroughly entertaining from the get go, keeping the reader and characters in a state of uncertainty and anxiety, continually pulling the carpet out from under our feet. Along the way it has much to say about the effects of violence and how it can undo our lives. I loved it with no reservations.