OR: The Surrogate

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #14:-

The Surrogate (Sphere paperback, 438pp, £6.99) by Tania Carver is, like Crucifix (see last Thursday’s post), a first novel, only this time with the distinctly unglamorous setting of Colchester, where a monster is targeting pregnant women and taking their unborn babies. DI Phil Brennan is in charge of the task force handling the investigation, but to crack the case he must work with criminal profiler Marina Esposito, and that is awkward, as they became lovers on their previous case and it ended badly. The trail leads them to a former prostitute and police informant, with whom one of Brennan’s officers has an unhealthy relationship. Subsequently they hare off down some false trails, cheered on by a superior officer under media pressure to get a result (Phil and Marina know better), before getting the break which leads to the terrible truth behind the series of slayings.

This book is something of a mixed bag, with red herrings and complications that seem a little forced, but a strong central conceit to capture the reader’s imagination. The killer’s real focus is on the babies that he tears from their mothers’ wombs, as Marina soon realises and tries to convince the police, who are reluctant to accept the opinions of the psychologist they themselves employed. What makes it more interesting is the dark psychology at the back of the killer and his motives, which tie in to even darker atrocities, a tale of abuse and mutilation stretching back over the years, though I can’t comment on that without the risk of plot spoilers. The setting is another plus, with the barren and almost deserted coastline in which the final scenes are acted out strongly realised on the page, a sense that in such surroundings the breeding of monsters is inevitable. To stretch a point, the ambience here is almost Lovecraftian.

Against that, again I guessed what was going on before the police and in spite of the writer’s attempts at misdirection, and there was nothing here that really surprised. Some elements seem like they are there simply as plot conveniences. Marina is pregnant, and so you know from the very start that at some point she is going to be placed in danger from the killer, only for some reason she is abducted and held prisoner, instead of being butchered on the spot as happened with all the previous victims. This increases the pressure on Phil, and the end is the usual (for this type of thing) race against the clock to save an innocent. Marina irritated me. With her fiery Latin temperament and irrational dealings with Phil, she’s about as close as you can come to a cliché of the female sex and get away with it. I didn’t really like her and, given the major and ostensibly laudable role she has to play in the proceedings, that was a serious problem for me.

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