Series: Jack Caffery #6
Author: Mo Hayder
Publisher: review edition published by Atlantic Monthly Press; first published by Bantam
Published: Atlantic Monthly Press: 14 May 2013; Bantam Press: 28 March 2013
Genre: crime thriller
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Something strange is going on at Beechway High Secure Unit. Or rather, something even more bizarre than what usually goes on at a psychiatric hospital “housing patients who are an extreme danger to themselves and others. Killers and rapists and the determinedly suicidal”. The legend of the Maude – the ghost of a dwarf who abused the children in a 1860s workhouse – is setting the wards ablaze with rumours, while a series of mysterious power cuts heightens the tension. The worst part is that a patient has died of a heart attack, shortly after being found with Bible verses cut into her arms, reminiscent of the Maude’s practice of forcing children to write out biblical texts until their fingers bled.
AJ LeGrande, the senior nursing coordinator, finds himself subject to the terror of the Maude as well, but knowing how the insanity in a psychiatric hospital can ‘infect’ the staff, he focuses on finding rational explanations what’s happening. He soon finds sinister connections between the Maude phenomenon and a patient named Isaac Handel, who was recently released. Isaac had a habit of making ‘poppets’ – freaky voodoo dolls representing the people around him. AJ’s investigations suggest that Isaac may have been terrorising the other patients, and the dolls could be connected to the legend of the Maude and nightmares of a small figure sitting on patients’ chests.
AJ discusses his suspicions with Melanie Arrow, the unit’s director, and in doing so he forms a relationship with her that quickly grows from concern for a co-worker to passionate romance. But their new-found happiness is marred by the threat of Isaac and the Maude. When AJ’s conclusions become too disturbing to dismiss, he contacts the talented and dedicated Detective Inspector Jack Caffery.
This is my first Mo Hayder novel. I was only vaguely familiar with her name, but I when I saw Poppet on NetGalley I was immediately drawn to its creepy cover and intrigued by Hayder’s reputation for bringing elements of horror into her crime fiction. The very first chapter demonstrates exactly what I was looking for. It describes a patient’s intense fear of an approaching monster. She believes that she can make herself invisible by unzipping her skin and peeling it off like a wetsuit, a truly gruesome act that is described from her perspective. This is realist fiction not fantasy, but Hayder incorporates the supernatural through the psychoses of mental patients. Combined with bursts of shocking violence, the novel can be quite creepy.
It takes a while to get going though, for several reasons. AJ and Melanie’s relationship plays an important role, and some time is taken to set this up. Then, the relationship impede’s progress when Melanie begs AJ not to contact the police. He repeatedly complies because she’s so beautiful and he’s been single for a long time. AJ’s attitude towards his patients also slows things down a little. He lives “by the maxim that what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him” so “he’s never wanted to know what his patients have been in the unit for” because some of the things he’s heard are unbelievably horrific and can interfere with his ability to treat a patient fairly. For the reader, this means that you won’t learn anything useful about Isaac from AJ, who doesn’t even understand the significance of the poppets. You have to wait for Jack to give you the dirty details.
The final and most problematic issue for pacing is Jack Caffery himself. You see, this is the sixth book in the Jack Caffery series. No, you don’t have to read the others, although it might help to know more about Jack, who is stiff and bland. But the real problem is that because this is Jack’s series, he has to have a major role and an ongoing presence. AJ is really the main character, but he can’t be allowed to overshadow Jack. Unfortunately, the main plot doesn’t involve Jack until almost halfway through when AJ contacts Caffery to discuss his suspicions.
I assume it goes against protocol for the main character of your series to play second fiddle in one of the books, so Hayder has a side plot that puts Jack in play from the very start. This plot involves a missing celebrity named Misty Kitson, a case that’s apparently leftover from the previous book (but, again, you don’t need to read that). Jack knows Misty is dead. He wants the police to find the body so that Misty’s mother can have something to bury, but he can’t just reveal what he knows because he’s protecting a pretty young cop named Flea Marley who has covered up the crime. Jack needs her cooperation to retrieve the body and achieve the most favourable outcome – allowing the police to find the body so Misty’s mother can move on, but in a way that won’t implicate Flea or get Jack in trouble for protecting her.
I found the Misty case to be pretty boring. There’s no action, and very little suspense. There’s nothing for us to discover except the details of her death and the cover-up (nothing special). The narrative is driven by Jack’s attempts to persuade Flea to cooperate. But who cares when there’s a violent psychopath on the loose?
The Misty saga has absolutely nothing to do with the Beechway/Isaac story. The only links are two or three minor similarities between the plots. For example Jack’s relationship with Flea mirrors AJ’s relationship with Melanie: both men protect the women out of some overblown sense of chivalry inspired by the women’s beauty. In AJ’s case, it’s stupid but understandable – he’s sleeping with Melanie and falling in love. He doesn’t want to hurt her by jeopardising her career or hurt his chances of a long-term relationship.
Jack, however, is taking a greater personal risk for something more abstract:
Whenever he looks at Flea the animal part of his brain lights up. His limbic system goes into overdrive. Sometimes it screams sex. Sometimes, like now, it screams protect. Kill anything that threatens her.
Ah, there’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned sexism to make a character really, really boring. The book at least exposes this kind of patronising male behaviour as a mistake – denying women their agency and relieving them of responsibility for their actions turns out to be pointless, humiliating or dangerous.
An excellent point, but the book is still full of traditional femininity, with women typically defined by their relationships with men &/or wholesome domesticity. Flea is a morally questionable victim who needs a man like Jack to protect her, chastise her for taking the wrong moral path, and set her straight. Melanie, a woman in a position of power, is seen as an ice queen, while the men – AJ included – perv over her beauty. She describes having lost lovers because she preferred having a career to being domesticated. AJ’s Aunt Patience almost never leaves the house, spending most of the novel cooking for and feeding AJ. She’s a grumpy old matron who grows all her own fruit and vegetables, makes preserves, and disapproves of any woman AJ brings home. Monster Mother, an insightful patient on one of the wards, cut off her own arm in response to her husband’s constant infidelity and now imagines that she gave birth to all the patients and staff. Penny, a character whose presence in the book feels seriously neglected, has been living alone and isolated with her dog for years after several failed relationships. She is very beautiful and makes preserves for a living.
The resolutions at the end of the novel don’t make any improvements on the portrayal of women; if anything, it gets worse, but I can’t have that discussion without major spoilers.
At least the novel doesn’t disappoint as thriller, especially once Caffery gets involved and a serious investigation begins. The Misty stuff is backgrounded, and we finally get into the dark and twisted details of Isaac’s insanity. Isaac is incredibly creepy, partly because he remains hidden for a long time, while we learn more about what he’s done and what’s going on at Beechway. He’s set up as a monster, unhindered by reality so that you’re left holding your breath for what he’s going to do when he finally does appear. As far as I’m concerned, the more messed up a villain is the better, and Poppet has no shortage of craziness.
I’d like to read some of the earlier thrillers that established Hayder’s reputations and where, hopefully, the plot isn’t complicated by the importance of Jack’s role. Without the Misty case holding Poppet up, the novel could have been so much more taught and impressive. I wasn’t too happy with the way the female characters are written, but I can’t deny that Hayder delivers an entertaining story.