Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken MonstersTitle: Broken Monsters
Author:
Lauren Beukes
Publisher: 
Umuzi
Published:
 July 2014
Genre: 
fantasy, crime, horror
Source: 
Umuzi
Rating:
 
8/10

I think Lauren Beukes has hit her stride with crime fiction, or at least her distinct brand of crime fiction – a kind of character-driven, urban-fantasy crime thriller with elements of horror. The Shining Girls was like no other crime novel I’d ever read, and now I’m glad to find something similarly fresh but with a totally different story.

Like The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters juggles multiple POVs, a large cast of great characters, and explores the intricacies of an American city (this time it’s Detroit). Beukes uses the killer as a POV character again, which means there’s no mystery as to who he is, but you do have the opportunity to see him work and experience his insanity more intimately. And, like Harper Curtis in The Shining Girls, Clayton Broom is driven by a force he doesn’t understand and cannot control.

This time though, the killer isn’t trying to snuff out brilliance but create art. The figure on the cover of the South African edition is a representation of the body that sets the story in motion – the top-half of a ten-year-old boy, fused to the bottom half of a deer. But the cover achieves what the killer does not – it is art, with a sense of beauty and magic and life. The boy in the novel is dead and butchered and he’s never going to leap like the killer intended.

Detective Gabriella Versado investigates the crime scene after a rookie discovers the body, and she’s put in charge of the case. Gabi is a single mom and has a slightly uneasy relationship with her teenage daughter, Layla. They can get on pretty well, but Gabi’s always working, and Layla is a typically feisty teenager going through more than the usual troubles. Her best friend Cas has cooked up a scheme for trapping an online sex predator, and you just know it’s not going to turn out the way they expect it to.

TK is a homeless guy who survives by scavenging the abandoned buildings of Detroit. He’s a good man who tries to help others and makes an effort to improve himself, but you know that, sadly, he’s never going to get over the rough start he had in life.

Jonno is, in some ways, like his polar opposite. While TK does meaningful work, and makes real connections with people, Jonno made a living as a blogger writing the kinds of clickbait lists we see on the internet everyday: “‘10 Rules for the New Gentleman’s Guide To Dating’ […] It’s all chum to pull in the likes” (57). He recently fucked up his life and his career, and now he’s in Detroit, ransacking the pretentious hipster scene for the edgy content that will rack up enough likes for his ex-girlfriend to notice.

If TK comes across as an unassuming, unrecognised hero, then Jonno is a kind of thoughtless villain. He isn’t the murderer, but when he finds out about the bizarre killings, he sees his chance to become a social media celebrity. He jeopardises Gabi’s investigation in his relentless bid to make the most horrifying, sensational information public, meanwhile spouting bullshit about finding the truth for the sake of the people.

Social media is a major theme in the novel and forms part of the structure of its narrative. Beukes uses chats, texts, Facebook messages and other digital communication – sometimes in text-speak and/or barely coherent ranting. Issues of privacy in a social media age become important plot points and have profound effects on the characters and their relationships.

The novel also happens to be a great police procedural, capturing the realities of being a cop in “The. Most. Violent. City. In. America” (9) and getting into the weirder information required for the investigation, like the meat glue used to fuse the boy and the deer, or the process of taxidermy. Beukes has clearly done her research, and it pays off.

Equally well-crafted are the characters. If shows like True Detective or Broadchurch appeal to you, where the narrative takes its time to develop the characters instead of focusing only on the murder investigation, then you might like Broken Monsters for the same reason.

Rather than give you a general overview, I thought I’d take an in-depth look at a few small details. On the very first page, while Gabi is checking out the body that sets the whole story in motion, we learn a lot about her relationship with Layla. She happens to think about the myth of “mothers and daughters bonding over fat-free frozen yoghurts” and counters it with her own feeling that “the best conversations she has with Layla are the ones in her head” (9).

So there’s a longing for Gabi and Layla to be a cute, quirky mother-daughter pair, perhaps something like the Gilmore Girls, but we’re immediately told that that idea is a fantasy. When we later see Gabi and Layla together, it’s clear that they could make a great team (I love the line “don’t forget the code to the gun safe, beanie, just-in-case” (26)), but there’s always a fundamental disconnect between them.

This is illustrated on the other two pages of the brief opening chapter. The hybrid body reeks, and Gabi is with a rookie cop who is hanging back because of the smell. She offers him some fruity lipgloss that she bought for Layla, to smear on his upper lip:

“Here,” she offers, fishing a small red tub of lipgloss out of her pocket. Something she bought at the drugstore on a whim to appease Layla. A candy-flavoured cosmetic – that’s sure to bridge the gap between them. “It’s not menthol, but it’s something.” (10)

Again, I love what this says about the characters. Gabi is trying to be thoughtful by buying her daughter a little gift, but she doesn’t hesitate to give some of the lipgloss to a colleague. When she later gives it to Layla, her daughter immediately scoffs, pointing out that it’s just a scam and doesn’t do your lips any good. At the same time though, she’s thinking about how she’d actually like to use some of the lipgloss. A few lines later, she complains rudely that she doesn’t want to hear Gabi’s cop stories, while texting her friend Cas and admitting that she actually likes the stories.

Another interesting thing about the lipgloss detail is that it plays a role in the depiction of Gabi’s character and her relationship with the rookie cop. She’s not actually trying to help him – as Layla snarkily points out later, rubbing menthol or whatever on your upper lip won’t cover the smell of a body (she watches the crime channel). Gabi’s playing a prank on the rookie because he’s an FNG – Fucking New Guy. Because the lipgloss has glitter in it, the squad ends up calling him “Sparkles”. At first Gabi tries to brag about her prank to Layla (who isn’t interested) but later she feels bad about embarrassing the guy because he proves to be a conscientious, observant police officer. That affects the way Gabi treats him later in the story, and subsequently affects the way she thinks about herself, so that that random thing with the lipgloss ends up being meaningful all the way to the end of the novel.

I really appreciate this sort of writing – it’s clever, it’s thoughtful and it makes good use of the words (and thus of the effort we put into reading them).

Oh and, in case you were wondering, this is definitely a fantasy novel. I haven’t gotten into the details of how it’s fantasy, because for most of the story it’s quite a subtle thing, hovering between symptoms of madness and the decidedly supernatural. Sometimes I only realised later that a certain event had had a supernatural influence. If this isn’t enough of a fantasy element for you, then just be patient and brace yourself for the ending.

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Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

Talus and the Frozen KingTitle: Talus and the Frozen King
Author: Graham Edwards
Series: Talus #1
Published: 26 March 2014
Publisher: Solaris
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: historical fiction, crime and mystery
Rating: 4/10

Talus and the Frozen King has a very nice selling point – the world’s first detective. According to the blurb anyway. The novel doesn’t openly make the same claim, but it’s set in the second or third millennium BC, and Talus is the only person around who thinks like a detective – observing the world around him to pick up clues and use them to draw conclusions about people, situations and crimes. 

Talus and his companion Bran are travelling to the source of the Northern Lights. Talus heard that the source of the Northern Lights is where the world intersects with the afterdream (their version of the afterlife), and he’s on a quest to see if the afterdream is real. Bran hopes to meet his dead wife Keyli there, but he’s on the verge of giving up. Before he can discuss it with Talus, they are drawn to Creyak, a small island where the inhabitants have just found the body of their king, naked and frozen in the snow (the fully clothed figure on the cover is totally inaccurate). Although the king’s death is mysterious, it is simply assumed that “his time had come”, and burial preparations are about to being. Talus convinces the shaman and the king’s six sons that it was a murder and if they allow him to investigate, he can identify the killer. His methods are strange and often shocking to them, but Talus is smart enough to prove his worth.

One thing that worried me about the story was the idea that the people of Creyak need Talus to solve this murder because no one else would consider the possibility of murder, let alone investigate one. But Edwards is quick to provide an explanation – killing the king is unthinkable so it’s assumed no one would ever do it. According to their culture, the king

would have been a living vessel for the spirits of all the tribe’s ancestors. To strike out at such a man was to strike out at every Creyak villager who had ever lived and died, all the way back to the first dawn. Killing a king wasn’t just murder; it was genocide.

Genocide might be the wrong word, since the murderer can’t actually kill those who are already dead, but he’d still be committing some kind of extreme violence against them. After death, the murderer would be horribly tortured by the ancestors for eternity. Thus no sane person would kill a king. Even when Talus raises the possibility of murder, the king’s eldest son Tharn is not particularly interested in an investigation because, according to their beliefs, the murderer will inevitably suffer greater punishments than any living being could deal out.

I thought this was an interesting concept, and it ties in nicely with the issues of faith and the afterdream that are also driving Talus and Bran. So I got off to a fairly good start with the book, although there were some issue that I had with the worldbuilding. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding issues are quite serious. Also the characters aren’t compelling and eventually the story faltered and fell flat, so the whole thing ended up being a huge disappointment. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, and you can stop reading right here if you’re happy to take that opinion at face value, but I will, of course explain myself.

Firstly, Talus and Bran. They are very obviously modelled on Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Talus is very smart and curious, but he can be extremely condescending, especially to Bran. LIke Watson, Bran has a handicap (a crippled hand) and he’s a big brawny guy. Bran states that Talus isn’t very good at understanding human nature, and Talus admits he’s baffled by certain things, like the way love can drive people to do terrible things. Of course they’re not exactly the same as Holmes and Watson. Talus can’t actually work as a detective; he’s a bard. Bran was a fisherman, not a doctor, and was never in a war.

I don’t have a major problem with Edwards using the Holmes/Watson model, but there does seem to be a kind of laziness to it, particularly since the similarities don’t always feel natural. I’m not sure why Bran puts up with Talus’s rudeness. Watson puts up with Holmes because he’s fascinated by him, considers him a good friend, and accepts that he has mental problems (at least in the BBC TV series), but it’s not the same with Bran. Also, Talus doesn’t seem to have serious problems understanding human nature as both he and Bran suggest. Talus can be insensitive, but he’s not as dysfunctional as Holmes. There’s a scene where he’s quick to notice that a man and a woman are having an affair, while Bran doesn’t catch on until later. And as a successful bard, Talus is adept at picking stories that his audience would like to hear, which implies that he’s very good at reading people. This idea that Talus doesn’t understand human nature is something that only seems to be trotted out when it suits the narrative.

Then, the case. As I said, it’s intriguing at first, and it briefly got more interesting as we learned more about the king Hashath and why people wanted to kill him, but then it just wilted. It lacks tension, it doesn’t have the brilliant deductions that you get in a Sherlock Holmes story (I consider it a fair comparison, since Edwards insists on basing Talus on Holmes), and the resolution is simultaneously mess and dead boring. Of course Talus solves the mystery, but not in a way that makes him look as smart as he purports to be. At the beginning, Talus points out that the killer could have been a woman, which is something Bran hadn’t considered. It makes Talus look quite open-minded, but afterwards he never really views any of the female characters as suspects even though they had very clear motives. The issue of faith comes up so often that it seems key, but at the end it has little to do with the story. I understand that maybe Edwards was throwing out red herrings to get the reader more engaged, but they turn out to be frustrating more than anything else. At the end, the truth is far less interesting than the other possibilities.

And, the worldbuilding. There’s no fantasy here, but like any novel set in the past, the author needs to immerse us in the context. My friend Barbara bought the book and joined me for a read-along, and I was very glad for her company because she’s an archaeologist and provided some valuable insight into the historical details, whereas I am a complete twit when it comes to anything historical. That said, I was deeply suspicious or critical about lots of things before Barbara even said a word.

For example, we’re told that Talus went to Egypt, saw the pyramids, and had philosophical conversations with the a queen named Tia. In fact it was she who told him about the Northern Lights intersecting with the afterlife.

Would an Egyptian queen know about the Northern Lights? Would Talus have gone to Egypt? It seems unlikely, given the difficulty of travel and the relatively short life spans of people at the time, that Talus would have had the chance to travel from his birthplace, to Egypt, and then all the way to Creyak, which seems to be in The Orkneys of Scotland. But that’s merely implausible; what seems virtually impossible is that the shaman Mishina says he’s seen the Egyptian pyramids as well as the pyramids in the jungles of Central America. So he’s not only travelled to Egypt but to Central America and back.  

I very grudgingly allowed for the idea that he’d gone on some kind of expedition but Barbara quickly put paid to that, explaining that it was theoretically possible but that there was no likely reason for it to have happened given the resources required, the time it would take, lack of knowledge about their destination, likelihood of survival, etc.

Barbara brought up other issues. The concept of the afterdream is aboriginal, not European. She felt that the concept of a king was too modern (a different word for the leader would have been better), while the idea of killing him wasn’t that outlandish, since lots of people sacrificed their chiefs or killed unsatisfactory rulers. I have to agree with the use of the word “king” – it sounds nice in the title, but Hashath only ruled over a small island; hardly what you’d consider a kingdom. There are also much more serious issues with the time period, which I’m glad Barbara mentioned because otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered checking the dates.

The Egyptian queen Tia (Tiye) places the story in the 14th century BC, but at this time they were burying their kings in tombs, rather than pyramids as Talus claims. The Central American pyramids that Mishina saw weren’t being built until around 500BC, and most were built in AD. The press release I got states that the novel is set in 3000BC, although I’m not sure if the publisher checked that with Edwards, because in the author’s note he specifically states that he’s not going to give us a date. The novel is all over the place anyway.

I also had a huge issue with the writing style – it’s very modern. Too modern even for a Sherlock Holmes story. The only thing about the language that’s supposed to give us some idea of the context is that the word “justice” apparently doesn’t exist yet, and people don’t understand what Talus means when he tells them to “prove” something. And that’s pretty weak. The writing is easy to read, but it completely dissociates the reader from the context. I’d happily choose a strange and difficult style over easy reading that fails the story.

Edwards uses his author’s note to make excuses for the lack of historical accuracy, and he sums it up as such:

Thought is made not of stone, but of story. To really understand the humanity of the past, I think you have to put aside the facts and indulge in a little fiction.

That sounds nice enough, but it hasn’t worked in practice. More research and greater accuracy would have done wonders for this book.  Instead, I find myself thinking that I’d have a more authentic – and enjoyable – Neolithic experience going north of the Wall with George R.R. Martin’s wildlings.

Basically this book is a mess, and a boring one at that.

The Never List by Koethi Zan

The Never List by Koethi ZanTitle: The Never List
Author: 
Koethi Zan
Published:
 
16 July 2013
Publisher: 
Pamela Dorman Books
Genre: 
crime, thriller, mystery
Source: 
ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 
5/10

When Sarah and Jennifer were 12-years old, they were in a car accident that killed Jennifer’s mother and put both girls in hospital for four months. In a kind of post-traumatic pathology, they start making lists of things that can harm or kill them. They find a fragile comfort in their knowledge, believing it can protect them from danger. When they go to college, they start The Never List – a list of things they should never do: “never go to the campus library alone at night, never park more than six spaces from your destination, never trust a stranger with a flat tire. never, never, never”.

Their pathological caution makes it even more horrifying when they are kidnapped and held captive in a cellar with two other women. A psychology professor named Jack Derber keeps them chained up for days, only taking them out of the cellar to torture them. Three years later Sarah, Tracy and Christine escape, but by then Jennifer was already gone.

Ten years later, Sarah has changed her name and has a successful career, but never leaves her apartment and continues to participate in stunted therapy sessions. It’s only when she learns that Jack might be paroled for good behaviour that she’s motivated to step outside and do what she can to keep him locked up. Jennifer’s body was never found, so Jack was only convicted on kidnapping charges. Sarah believes that the letters Jack still sends to his captives hold the clues to finding out what happened to Jennifer. Once she finds the body he can be convicted of murder and she believes she can finally come to terms with her friend’s death and the horror of what happened to them in that cellar.

Despite being grossly impaired by her pathologies Sarah embarks on an informal investigation that takes her down far more perverse paths than she expected. Between a present-day narrative and flashbacks to Sarah’s captivity in Jack’s cellar, The Never List  tells a story of BDSM culture, torture and human cruelty.

 

Now, partly because I’ve read and watched a lot of mysteries crime thrillers, and partly because I often read them as a reviewer, I immediately start looking for potential twists and shocking conclusions. I find that many mysteries deal in devastation – it’s not so much about the complexity of a crime (as in a Sherlock Holmes mystery) but about how shocking and horrifying the crime can be. It’s hard to figure out the complex, Sherlock-Holmes-style crimes; It’s much easier to think of shocking twists and endings the author might have written. All you have to do is ask “what if?” and look for sadistic answers. I start asking “what if?” almost immediately and guessed two major reveals very early on. And as a result, I didn’t find this book as shocking as it probably intended to be. Certainly not Gillian-Flynn shocking, which is what the blurb promises. Not nearly as good as Gillian Flynn either.

But yes, I can be pedantic and over-analytical which is not a good thing if you’re going to read crime thrillers and want to be thrilled. Also, this book has other mysteries that I didn’t figure out, and it’s more than just a crime investigation. It’s also a story about a woman fighting against her psychological problems to punish the man who hurt her and achieve some kind of justice for his victims.

Sarah’s mental problems make it difficult for her to gather information. She has to leave her apartment which she hadn’t done in years. Once out in the world, she struggles to talk normally to people, simply because she’s out of practice. She avoids touching people, going out at night, going down narrow corridors to back rooms, getting into other people’s cars – myriad things that frequently force her to turn back instead of learning more.

It’s a good angle in theory, but for me Sarah wasn’t a strong enough character to keep me fully invested in the story. Of the three victims who escaped, Sarah has the most mental obstacles to overcome, yet she’s the least interesting of the narrators the author could have used. Christine and Tracy’s experiences were both more turbulent, yet both recovered more than Sarah did. Tracy in particular had a difficult childhood, mixed with a lot of subcultures, and became is an academic who could probably give us a better understanding of what Jack did to them and of the issues of torture and BDSM that come up.

Jack’s character is also neglected. We know he kidnapped the girls to torture them because torture fascinates him intellectually. We know he used their weaknesses against them, like telling Sarah that she could help Jennifer by enduring more pain. But we don’t know much more than this, and I think it’s a problem – you’re not given the chance to understand one of the novel’s most intriguing characters.

Sarah tells us that “On a good day, he simply did what he wanted with your body. […] On a bad day, he talked.” There are a few brief descriptions of the physical torture, but virtually nothing about what Jack said to them. It’s very likely that he chose Sarah and Jennifer because he knew about their pathological fear and caution, but this is never explored. In fact, the whole concept of ‘The Never List’ has no significance beyond the very beginning of the story. Also, Jack is a professor, and it’s obvious that all this torture has some kind of academic purpose, but we never find out exactly what that is. Why wasn’t that part of the initial investigation? Did everyone just assume Jack was nuts and chuck him in jail?

He remains a silent presence. While in jail he communicates only in vague, forgettable letters. Sarah thinks Jack has left clues about Jennifer’s body in those letters, but this barely amounts to anything. And we don’t learn anything about him during the flashbacks.

So, if you’re looking for a psychological thriller about a criminal psychopath, you’re not going to find it here. It focuses more on the psychology of the victims – Sarah’s PTSD, and her state of mind as a captive:

Captivity does things to you. it shows you how base an animal you can be. How you’d do anything to stay alive and suffer a little bit less than the day before.

 

I started hating myself for my weakness. I hated my body for what it couldn’t handle. I hated myself for begging and bringing myself low before this man. I dreamed at night of smashing his face, of rising up like a banshee, screaming, hysterical, full of strength. But then, inevitably, when, after days of starving me, he would come and feed me little bits of food from his own hands, I would suck it off his fingers like an animal, greedy, thankful and pathetic—a supplicant again.

 

The only variables I could register at that point were whether something caused me physical pain, or whether it alleviated the soulcrushing boredom of my day-to-day existence. By then I didn’t have much of an emotional range beyond that.

In addition to these details, the flashback narratives give us Tracy and Christine’s backstories in rather bland, extended info dumps. It’s hardly as “relentless” or “deeply disturbing” as the marketing blather claims Zan’s writing to be. The main mystery in the present-day narrative is similarly disappointing. It starts out well, then expands into unexpected territory, quickly sidelining the plot about finding Jennifer in favour of cults and criminal organisations, only to wander back to the Jennifer issue towards the disappointing ending.

Throw in a few deus ex machinas, implausible character behaviour (like Sarah meeting a relative stranger at a BDSM club at midnight), “shocking” revelations that don’t shock all that much, and it’s a pretty average thriller. It certainly doesn’t deserve the kind of hype it’s been getting lately. My advice – save it for a dull flight. It might seem more exciting that way.

Review of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P SingletonTitle: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
Author: 
Elizabeth L. Silver
Publisher:
Crown Publishing
Published:
 11 June 2013
Genre: 
crime, mystery, drama
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 7/10

I know I did it. The state knows I did it, though they never really cared why. Even my lawyers knew I did it from the moment I liquidated my metallic savings bank hoarded in the bloated gut of a pink pig to pay their bills. I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once.

When Noa P. Singleton was put on trial for killing Sarah Dixon, she never took the stand in her own defence, and the state’s weak, melodramatic case was enough to give her the death penalty. Now, after a decade in jail and her execution date six months away, Noa is suddenly approached by Sarah’s mother Marlene. At the trial, Marlene stated that Noa was exactly the kind of person the death penalty was designed for. Now, she offers to use her considerable influence as a high-powered attorney to get Noa granted clemency – life in prison instead of death.

In exchange, Marlene wants Noa to prove that she’s reformed, specifically by revealing the all the details that she never confessed during the trial – her motives and the specifics of what happened that day. Whether or not Noa deserves to be on death row, they both know that she was put there for the wrong reasons. Marlene sends her lawyer Oliver to speak to Noa, who begins telling her story, from the very beginning when her mother dropped her as a baby.

Which is kind of funny in the black way that Noa sometimes laughs at things if only to avoid crying about the way her life has turned out. This is a mystery novel, but it’d be more accurate to think of it as a tragic life story that led to a murder and a death sentence. At ten-months old (I’m rather sceptical about the idea that Noa has memories from such an early age, but whatever) Noa’s mother accidentally dropped her from the top of a second-floor stairway. Too embarrassed to admit what happened, she made up a ridiculous story about an intruder and proceeded to wreck Noa’s crib and the house as evidence for her lie.

In true Freudian style, Noa repeatedly looks to her past to explain or contextualise the later events of her life. This incident is mentioned several times, particularly because of her mother’s bizarre attempt to cover up the truth, as Noa has done. Being dropped as a baby is also the first in a long line of mishaps and tragedies that characterise Noa’s life. She was raised by a single mother who frequently changed boyfriends. She suffered a disastrous miscarriage, requiring an emergency abortion that left her unable to have children. She dropped out of college soon after and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with her life. Later, Noa’s estranged father gets in touch with her and tries to build a relationship with her. He’s an ex-con and a recovering alcoholic who is very obviously a relapse waiting to happen.

Although this sounds more like a drama than a crime novel, most of Noa’s story, down to the sad little details, eventually ties in to the murder, the trial and her sentence. A lot of it ends up being misused in the trial, which seems more like a soap opera than a serious legal procedure.

It turns out that Noa is actually the one writing the story we’re reading, doing her best to explain how she ended up on death row, why she never defended herself, why she committed murder in the first place. She sometimes suggests that she’s an unreliable narrator – revealing that a story she just told is a lie, or leaving out important events and details – but you get the impression that if she has misled you, she will eventually tell the whole truth. In between her biographical chapters, she also describes her conversations with Marlene’s lawyer Oliver (a sweet twenty-something who, unlike Marlene, is very serious about helping Noa), details about the death penalty in America, comments on how the trial was conducted (like the way the jury was frequently asked to ignore statements from witnesses, or how she was demonised as a bitter, barren psychopath), life on death row and so on.

Partly because Noa is the author here, your sympathy falls with her, the confessed, convicted murderer. She manages to be the heroine rather than the villain, even if you don’t quite like her (she’s certainly not cute and fluffy). If there is a villain of any kind, it’s Marlene, the mother of the murder victim. Noa says she “had never known Marlene to possess even a quarter of a heart, let alone a full one”, and even when accounting for the fact that Marlene is shown from Noa’s perspective, she really does seem to be a stone cold bitch. Her motives for wanting to get Noa granted clemency are purely selfish – she wants a means of getting the truth, and she wants Noa to spend the rest of her life wasting away in jail rather than being given an early escape. Which is a perfectly understandable attitude toward the woman who shot your daughter, until you realise that this is simply an example of Marlene’s cruel selfishness. The narrative actually includes some letters she writes to her dead daughter, but these don’t elicit sympathy so much as reveal Marlene to be the unstable, controlling woman that Noa warned us about.

I want to make a few comments on the writing and narrative style. The novel is easy to read, but Silver often makes attempts at being poetic that tend to be confused or just fall flat. Oliver actually criticises Noa’s metaphors at one point: “Lovely, Noa,” he said, spitting a bit of scoff my way. “Taking a poetry class via the post?” Based on that you could say that this style is a voice Silver crafted for Noa, but sometimes Marlene does it too.

Another thing I wanted to mention is that a couple of chapters are little more than lists. Between telling her life story, Noa gives us trivia related to her experience at the trial an in prison – excuses people make to avoid jury duty, final words of people who’d been executed, final meals. Some of this is interesting for a short while, but it quickly gets tedious without adding anything to the story. It’s also unclear where Noa gets this information, since she’s stuck in prison with few connections to the outside world.

But flaws aside, this is a pretty good read and an impressive debut novel. I loved the way the main characters’ psychology unfolded as the novel progressed, with all their twisted issues about family, guilt and atonement. It moves relatively slowly for quite a while, but by the last quarter or so I was anxious about how it would turn out. If I’d read it in print instead of on a Kindle I’d have had to stop myself from ‘accidentally’ glancing at the final pages. And any mystery that has that effect on me has done its job.

 

Review of The Cutting Room by Mary Watson

Cutting Room_2Title: The Cutting Room
Author: Mary Watson
Publisher: Penguin Books
Published: April 2013
Genre: psychological thriller
Source: Penguin Books SA
Rating: 8/10

Writing a plot summary for The Cutting Room is difficult – the novel doesn’t follow the chronology of its events. Putting them in chronological order for a plot summary feels disingenuous, because that’s not a proper reflection of how the novel feels to me. But all summaries and reviews are inaccurate in some way; keeping that in mind I might as well go ahead.

Lucinda is a cutter. She doesn’t cut herself with blades – she cuts and edits film – but the sense of menace and the hint at harm and self-harm are not to be ignored. For the second time in their marriage, Lucinda’s husband Amir has disappeared. The first time he went to do ‘research’, and left without saying a word to her, only sending an sms to say that he was ok. This time, Lucinda suspects that Amir has actually left her for good, although she has no way of knowing for sure because he hasn’t communicated with her at all. Their marriage had become strained, and Lucinda finds Amir too inscrutable to understand what exactly has gone wrong. Is it her fault, or is it something else?

Lonely and frustrated, she fills her days with work, dinner parties, and nights with trendy, pretty boys at bars in Long Street, Cape Town. Her nosy, paranoid neighbour keeps worrying about how vulnerable she and Lucinda are, as two women living alone in the crime-ridden Cape. Lucinda finds this annoying, but one night she is attacked with a knife in her bedroom.

Trying to get on with her life, Lucinda joins an old friend on his latest project – a documentary about a supposedly haunted house in the small town of Heuwelhoek. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, and yet the house draws parallels with the figurative ghosts in her own life, and the problems that continue to haunt her.

As I mentioned, the actual story isn’t as linear as this plot summary. To read it is not so much to read a story in the traditional sense but to view a collage of characters, relationships and themes. The narrative jumps back and forth between pasts and presents, Cape Town and Heuwelhoek. In the present, Lucinda tries to live a life where Amir – like her own safety – is an uncertainty. When it segues to the past, we see the before and during of their marriage. At times the narrative goes back even further, to Lucinda’s childhood. The haunted house in Heuwelhoek has its own narrative arc, with stories told about the various people who lived there.

In this way, this novel has multiple facets. It’s an intimate psychological study of Lucinda. It’s depicts her understanding of her relationship with Amir. It’s a supernatural mystery with a touch of horror. It’s a tapestry of life in Cape Town, a mixing pot of cultures and histories but also a “Janus-faced city” (17) with its combination of wealth and poverty. It’s a story about intruders, whether they’re criminals breaking and entering in the city of Cape Town, or ghosts disrupting homes and lives.

We never learn when the first scene of the novel takes place, but it sets the tone for what follows. In it, Lucinda sees a burglar on the wall between her house and her neighbour’s. He’s holding a DVD player and a brick. She calls out to him; he makes as if to throw the brick at her, but it’s just an act of mockery and he runs away laughing. In real time this scene would last about thirty seconds, but it takes up several pages as we’re plunged into Lucinda’s interior world. Some of her thoughts are random and a bit silly – she’s impressed that this man jumped onto this high, narrow wall and wonders how criminals train to master their craft; she compares her stereotypically sinister image of criminals with the ordinary person before her; she thinks of how he looks like the Oros man with his big belly and orange T-shirt; she thinks about how much she hates the Oros man “with that bloated rubber dominatrix suit. That sinister smile. His round dead eyes” (3). When her mind focuses on the reality of the situation, she is scared but also annoyed – this man intruded on her Sunday morning and now she’s a witness to his crime. She has been infected by someone else’s problem. It reminds her of a similar, haunting experience as a child. She is, to an extent, in danger, but the burglar uses her vulnerability to humiliate her.

What comes across here are the themes of crime and intrusion, the psychological narrative style in which the story is related, and a brief but illuminating idea of who Lucinda is as a person. The way you can be shamed by what other people’s sins. This kind of detailed interiority makes The Cutting Room a relatively dense, demanding read, but also a rewarding one. Watson’s writing is impeccable: her combination of choppy and run-on sentences mimics the nature of Lucinda’s thoughts, and the details with which she weaves her stories and characters are captivating.

Lucinda is a complex character who I empathised with, admired and disliked all at once. In some ways she’s similar to me – a coloured woman from Cape Town with her fair share of insecurities. Coming from a historically impoverished background and a troubled childhood, she is now sophisticated and financially comfortable, but deeply conscious of keeping up her desired appearances. If she seems cold at times, it could be because she prides herself on being able to be “aloof and unemotional”. When people ask about Amir’s absence, she tries to be nonchalant, never admitting how shamed and lonely she is. I particularly like this anecdote about her cravings for KFC and what it says about her character:

 Lucinda, then approaching thirty, wanted to be stylishly grown-up; she wanted to be sophisticatedly disaffected. The only thing was that every now and then she craved Kentucky Fried with the same intensity that Rapunzel’s mother wanted those radishes in the witch’s garden. She needed the deep grease and she wanted to lick the small bones clean. But she hated going down into the KFC wearing her little boutique dresses – the smell of refried oil absorbed into the expensive fabric and her hair. She felt stared at. Sturvy. So she would slip into an old tracksuit and head down to the Main Road as if in disguise. It became a secret; it just didn’t fit in with the deli and boutique culture she was working so hard at. (41)

“Sturvy”, by the way, is coloured Cape Town slang for “snooty” and its one of the scatterings of slang that Watson has woven into her depiction of the city. She doesn’t explain it, which might be a bit confusing for international readers, but which I thought was great, as explanations tend to distance you from the culture.

Anyway. Lucinda struggles with being alone, not only because Amir has disappeared but because she simply doesn’t know what to do with her time at home. Her work has made her hopelessly impatient:

Lucinda was getting used to manipulating time. She was becoming adept at making it lengthen and contract at will, at the click of a mouse. But it meant that she no longer knew how to wait. That she who had once waited and waited (for Cat to come home from school, for the princess, for her mother to get out of bed, her father to call) had lost the art of sitting something out. Lucinda’s sense of time no longer followed the wise circle of the clock. Instead, it had become a timeline that could be revisited. She could jump from the beginning to the end; she could sever anything that lingered unnecessarily. Except she couldn’t really. And later she realised that she, like software she knew so well, could also play a loop: have one small moment repeat endlessly. To see it relentlessly without reprieve. To know the details, each frame, but to be unable to change even a fraction of a second. (42)

She repeats those small moments by reliving happy memories of her relationship with Amir, to the point where those “comforting memories were worn thin from being taken out and lingered over on too many evenings in with a glass of wine” (14).

It’s quietly tragic, but this isn’t actually a particularly sad book. Lucinda’s narratives – and the book as a whole, in fact – are laced with a sense of menace that elevates the novel from dreary domestic drama to psychological thriller. There are countless details and stories that involve or suggest violence and cruelty or carry the threat of the supernatural – ghosts, witches, the tragedies of the past claiming victims in the present. It’s not something I can properly articulate in the space of a review – the effect is subtle and cumulative, so a few quotes won’t really convey the unsettling tone of the whole.

It’s interesting to note though, that crime isn’t the primary source of menace. Yes, the novel tackles the issue of crime in South Africa, but it doesn’t resort to the relatively simplistic depiction of fearful citizens preyed upon by vile criminals. Rather, crime is one aspect of a more complex consideration of fear in general.

One depressingly memorable moment is when, as a child, Lucinda is walking home with her sister Cat and they hear a woman screaming:

Lucinda thought, rape. Because that was the scariest thing. That’s what they were always warned about. Be careful when you walk home because you might get raped. Don’t go to the caravan park because you might get raped. (44)

Almost as scary as rape itself is the idea that a child would immediately think of rape when she hears a woman screaming. That says a lot about the kind of society that Lucinda and Cat grew up in. But the incident quickly becomes very different: when the woman emerges it’s revealed that she’s screaming for hep for her drowning brother. Lucinda and Cat only stare at the woman in shock, until she runs off looking for someone more capable. Then the two girls just walk on, and Cat immediately starts talking about their library books. Lucinda is more disturbed – was there really a drowning man? Has it got anything to do with the legend of a dead Princess who drowns children in the vlei? She never finds out what really happened and the incident haunts her for years. The unknown is just as threatening as regular crime, at least for Lucinda: ” While she minded gangsters very much, she was more frightened by things she couldn’t see, things that touched a nerve” (54).

The ghosts, whether real, imagined or figurative, cut deeper than any incidents of crime. They are born of intimate, unsettling secrets, they bring personal insecurities into sharp relief, they kindle obsessions. I particularly enjoyed the ghost stories of the house in Heuwelhoek. They raise more questions than they answer, but they get under your skin. As a genre fan I was hoping Watson would make the supernatural horror story a bigger part of the novel. I wasn’t unhappy with what she did, I just wanted more of it, with a more satisfying resolution.

But the book is primarily and Lucinda’s relationship with Amir and the mystery of his disappearance. This is probably not a good choice if you’re looking for sheer story – the book is packed with stories within stories, but the main arc of narrative moves quite slowly and isn’t especially exciting. The appeal lies in everything around the core narrative – the characters, their histories, the writing.

I was captivated, but if I have an any complaints, it’s that yes, the novel does drag in parts. As Watson mentioned in a Q&A with Penguin, The Cutting Room is a very reflective book rather than a typically fast-paced thriller. The challenge was to balance reflection and action. For the most part, I think Watson balanced it very well, not with guns-and-chases sort of action but with gripping stories and intriguing encounters. Nevertheless, Lucinda’s problems start to become tedious in the last third or so and I really wanted to hear more about the Heuwelhoek house instead.

Niggling aside – The Cutting Room is good. Very good. It’s one of the most sophisticated South African novels I’ve read and a classily macabre work in its own right. Recommended.

Review of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Title: The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translator: Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
Published: First published in Japanese in 2005; this translation published in 2011
Publisher:
 Little, Brown
Genre: crime, mytery
Source: review copy from Penguin SA
Rating: 7/10

Yasuko is a single mother living a quiet life, working in a Tokyo bento shop, when her ex-husband Togashi walks back into her life. She’d divorced him after he became an abusive drunk who took her money for gambling. Afterwards, he’d repeatedly harassed Yasuko and her daughter Misato, until Yasuko changed jobs, homes and Misato’s school in an effort to get away from him. But now he’s found them again. In their small apartment, he brags that they will never be rid of him, prompting a terrified Misato to attack him. In the struggle that follows, Yasuko defends her daughter by strangling Togashi while Misato holds him down.

Mother and daughter are both prepared to turn themselves in when their enigmatic neighbour, Ishigami, calls and offers to help them dispose of the body. Yasuko is shocked that he figured out what happened and wants to help, but she knows that Ishigami – a reclusive mathematical genius – has always had a thing for her. Although he’s too shy to exchange more than a few words with her and sometimes can’t even make eye contact, he always buys his lunch from the bento shop where she works just so that he can see her.

Ishigami immediately begins instructing Yasuko and Misato on dealing with the incriminating evidence and makes plans for disposing of Togashi’s body. Soon after, the police find a body with its face smashed in and fingerprints burned off. By the time they identify it as Togashi and come knocking on Yasuko’s door, the mother and daughter have credible alibis and there is no solid evidence linking them to Togashi’s death. But the police have no one else to suspect, and Detective Kusanagi of the Edogawa police keeps poking at the problems in Yasuko’s story and questioning the puzzling circumstances of the murder. He turns to his friend Yukawa, another genius who works in the physics department at a local university and sometimes helps the police with their cases.

Yukawa, Kusanagi and Ishigami actually all attended university at the same time, and when Yukawa hears that Ishigami is the neighbour of the murder suspect, he asks Kusanagi for the address. Yukawa simply wants to get in touch with an old friend and classmate whose brilliance he deeply admired, but in doing so he starts to suspect Ishigami’s involvement in the case. The physicist is the only one with a mind to match the mathematician’s, and with Kusanagi’s help he tries to solve the problem that Ishigami has created to protect the woman he is so devoted to.

This is an unusual and interesting angle for a mystery novel. For the reader, there is no mystery surrounding Togashi’s murder – we learn all there is to know about the why, who and how in the first two chapters. Instead, it’s Ishigami’s brilliant cover-up that drives the story, as Yukawa and Kusanagi battle to find the truth. We see only fragments of Ishigami’s plan, which at first seems simplistic and sloppy, but is soon revealed to be complex and deceptive. Ishigami has never done something like this before, but he is certain that “Logical thinking will get us through this” and applies mathematical ideas to the problem as if it were an equation or philosophical dilemma.

For the sake of suspense, most of his methods are hidden from the reader until the very end. It feels a tad artificial, since the story is told from multiple perspectives (Yasuko, Ishigami, Yukawa and Kusanagi) and you are very aware of the fact that the author is being selective about what his characters say and think, or how much of their conversations are put on the page. But I thought the story worked very well nevertheless. Even if you aren’t privy to Ishigami’s plans, you get to see Yukawa and Kusanagi tackling the problem. The only irritating part is when Yukawa starts to figure out what happened, but only makes vague and provocative statements about it because he’s unwilling to incriminate his friend and doesn’t want such a brilliant mind to be wasted in prison.

There are some other interesting character dynamics at play. Yasuko starts dating an old friend, but both she and Misato are aware of how this could jeopardise their situation – Ishigami is obviously obsessed with her, so what might he do if he feels betrayed? Should Yasuko put her life on hold for someone so socially inept that he can’t even have a normal conversation with her? And how dangerous is Ishigami, a man who didn’t think twice about covering up a murder or mutilating a body to do it? The crime has been committed, but the sense of menace remains, especially when Yukawa describes Ishigami as a man who would do anything, no matter how horrific, if it was the most logical solution to a problem.

It’s quietly compelling story, somehow managing to be a page-turner with a minimum of the drama that that term generally implies. I appreciated its calm, straightforward manner and the way the plot differed from the norm. The Japanese police in the novel seem so very different from the brash cops often seen in fiction, or the overworked, under-resourced and inefficient ones you hear about in the news. The Edogawa police have all the resources they need, and Kusanagi is thoughtful and observant. He warns his partner about the danger of assumptions, when the younger officer assumes that a nice single-mother like Yasuko couldn’t possibly be guilty of a violent crime. Similarly, Yukawa warns Kusanagi about the assumptions the police are making, knowing that Ishigami could use that against them.

I like the strategic, rational thinking here, especially when it comes to the two geniuses. I only wish that the whole novel was as rigorous, because its logic fails somewhat in relation to Misato’s character. While there were only two or three technical details that bothered me in the novel, the worst one was about Misato – after she attacks Togashi, he retaliates and hits her repeatedly in the face, but at no point does she show any bruises.

Then, I felt that her character was badly neglected, which bugged me throughout the book and becomes problematic at the end. We’re always left to make assumptions about her motives and feelings, while other characters’ are described in more detail. It’s stated that Togashi had physically abused Yasuko, but whether or not Misato was also abused is not clear, although it’s very likely. Then there’s a subtle suggestion that he may have abused her sexually, which would certainly account for her fear, and her impulse to attack Togashi and help her mother kill him. Misato’s actions are what set the entire story in motion, but even in that crucial moment the focus is on Yasuko, and Misato feels secondary. For the rest of the novel, she is little more than a sullen teenager, spitting out a line here and there. She clearly feels guilty about what she did, not because Togashi was killed but because of the trouble and risk created for Yasuko and Ishigami. And yet Misato’s feelings are barely touched upon, even when we see the story from Yasuko’s POV as a concerned parent. If she talks to Misato about the situation, we don’t see it on the page.

On a related note, the police largely ignore the reasons behind the murder. The reader, of course, knows that Togashi threatened Yasuko and Misato, and several characters express relief at his death, knowing how badly he’d treated his ex-wife and step-daughter. The police, however, are more concerned with the who and how of the murder, not the why. With no one to suspect except Yasuko, they try to figure out how she could have done it, but aren’t too concerned with the glaring possibility that she killed Togashi in a kind of self-defence. Besides the fact that the police would need a motive for the case, ignoring the issue seems unkind, portraying Yasuko as a killer rather than a vulnerable person in a difficult situation.

Flaws aside though, The Devotion of Suspect X is an excellent crime thriller and an intelligent page-turner. It offers a refreshing departure from the norm in English-language fiction, not only because of the plot but because of the Tokyo setting, and the Japanese culture. The translation can be a little clunky at times, but some of that I would chalk up to a difference in style that I’ve noticed in other translations from Japanese, in both popular fiction and anime. I’d happily pick up another of Keigo Higashino’s novels, and I’d recommend that you do too.

Review of Niceville by Carsten Stroud

Title: Niceville
Author: Carsten Stroud
Published: 12 June 2012
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Genre: horror, mystery, crime
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 5/10

One day in the American town of Niceville, ten-year-old Rainey Teague disappears on his way home from school. Literally disappears – a security camera shows him looking at something in a shop window, stepping back with his mouth opening in alarm, and then vanishing from sight as if someone were playing a cheap trick with the film. But as far as anyone can tell, there’s no hoax – the camera shows exactly what happened. Equally perplexing is that there’s no one to blame, and no explanation, except perhaps some intangible evil force within Niceville itself…

Then suddenly the novel seems to morph into a completely different story with multiple plot stands. A bank robbery leads to the brutal murder of several cops and a news team. One of the robbers is betrayed by his partners and narrowly escapes with a bullet in his back, but is rescued by a mysterious woman living on a plantation in the forest. An ex-FBI agent with some dirty secrets has to try to reclaim a very dangerous item that was stolen from his safe deposit box in the bank. He planning on selling it to the Chinese, and they won’t be very forgiving if he doesn’t deliver. An abusive husband and father wants to take revenge on the lawyer and judge who banned him from contact with his family. For now, he decides to practice and perfect his plan by ruining the lives of people with no connection to him.  A woman and a man both go missing from an old mansion in Niceville. Both are members of one of the town’s founding families.

Only the latter plot is directly related to the first part of the book where Rainey went missing. At times you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d somehow started reading a different novel. The only factors that seem to connect part two to the beginning are the location, the new disappearances, and a few common characters, notably Nick Kavanaugh, the investigating officer who led Rainey’s case, and his wife Kate, a family-practice lawyer.

At first this really bugged me. It’s like you’ve been tricked into reading a novel completely different from the one you expected and started reading. Attention is taken away from the unexplained supernatural aspects of Rainey’s disappearance and the focus is put on some very realist criminal activity. It’s a while before we get back to the most interesting stuff, and even then it’s only one aspect of a much more complex story.

Eventually though, everything seemed to be coming together as characters and storylines connect. I love novels and movies with multiple, interlinked plots, so I really enjoyed the middle bit of Niceville where the individual plot strands began to intertwine. It’s also where the book started to get really creepy (although that might also be because I read quite a lot of this in the middle of the night). Clearly, there is something wrong about Niceville. Most notably, the town “has logged one hundred and seventy-nine confirmed and completely random [stranger abductions] since records first started being kept back in 1928. This is a disappearance rate of, like, a little over two a year, […] which is completely whacked.” A few cases were solved, but “[o]f the remaining one hundred and sixty- two people— men, women, sometimes kids—not a single trace has ever been found.”

Rainey Teague was the most recent case, at least until Delia Cotton and Gray Haggard disappear from Delia’s mansion. There are a lot of eerie details surrounding the disappearance: a beautiful but creepy girl in a green summer dress; antique mirrors reflecting things that aren’t there; a weird mark on the floor in the shape of a person; the way past horrors seem to be intruding on the present. It’s all got something to do with dark secrets of Niceville’s founding families, and some kind of primordial evil that lies hidden in the cold black waters of Crater Sink, a large circular sinkhole in the cliff that hangs over the town.

You might be wondering what this has to do with bank robbers, cop-killers and the other criminals in the novel, all of whom are clearly devoid of supernatural powers. The sad answer is, not much. Niceville feels like two loosely connected novels that should not have been forced into one. The bank robbery, the ex-FBI agent and the vindictive husband stories remain almost completely separate from the supernatural storyline featuring unexplained disappearances, family secrets, ancient evil and ghosts. The two halves aren’t even in the same genre – one is realist crime fiction, the other is horror. There are overlaps of course, but the strongest link between the two is formed when a character from the crime story becomes an important part of the horror plot. It’s also implied that these crimes are actually influenced by the ancient evil in Crater Sink. And that’s that.

Even worse is that, although the horror story is marketed as the main one, it’s woefully neglected. Too many questions are left unanswered. Too many otherworldly occurrences are hinted at and never described in full. The resolution seems far too easy and peaceful, while also having the effect of cutting the story short. It’s so unsatisfying. In the meantime, the bloody crime-novel plot mostly gets sorted out. It’s not that I disliked that part of the book, but it’s not the one I cared about most and, frankly, I think it could have been left out.

For my rating, I took into account the fact that I really enjoyed reading a large portion of the book, I found it wonderfully creepy at times, and Stroud managed to get me fully invested in most of his story. I just think he’d have done a better job writing two books instead of one.

Buy Niceville at The Book Depository