A Killing of Angels by Kate Rhodes
When it comes to writing a book, the first question to decide is how naturalistic to make it. Some authors decide they will write the story as it is and leave out all the clever stuff. Others decide to play literary games. So, for example, the author can use the settings as a mirror for the action in the foreground. An earthquake might be used to signal fractures in human relationships. Or weather can become a kind of commentary on the emotions on display: it rains when people are sad, there’s thunder when they argue, and so on. As you can see, this approach can easily drop into cliché and, unless the author is particularly good at the craft of writing, is to be avoided. In A Killing of Angels by Kate Rhodes (Minotaur Books, 2014) which is the second book to feature Alice Quentin, a thirtysomething psychologist at Guy’s Hospital, London, the febrile hothouse atmosphere is mirrored by the record-breaking hot weather afflicting the city. Needless to say, it rains at the end to signal a tragedy has occurred and our protagonist needs therapy. Frankly, this metaphorical weather is clunky and overdone.
Note the reference to tragedy. From the classical world of Greece, we recognise the elements of a tragedy when all the main characters spend their time on stage suffering. From the outset, we know it’s not going to work out well for anyone, and yet the experience of sitting through all this misery is intended to be cathartic, i.e. the protagonist struggles to understand what’s happening in the world around him or her and, because we identify with the protagonist as he or she goes through this experience, we shed some of our own fears and uncertainties, and emerge feeling better. This works well when the plot has universality. No matter when the work was written. No matter who we are. The words speak to us. Unfortunately, many works featuring more extreme emotions often descend into melodrama and lose their therapeutic effect. In fact, we’re more likely to consider such works rather silly or somewhat amusing.
So in this book we meet our protagonist and begin to explore her emotional baggage. She was a wreck after events in the last exciting instalment, and she’s struggling to hold herself together as we watch her at work. Early on, she’s assaulted by one of the men attending the anger management program she runs. She decides not to call the police even though he causes severe bruising to her ribs. This is symptomatic of a deep-seated problem. This protagonist takes decisions most likely to cast herself in the role of a victim. Although we might applaud her altruistic decision to accept the injury without retaliating, all she’s doing is create a stalker. It’s exactly the same when Detective Inspector Don Burns invites her to consult in a new case. At an early stage, she meets a stereotypical misogynistic policeman and simply accepts his psychological abuse (although she does refuse his sexual overture). In other words, we’re expected to empathise with a leading character who’s seriously damaged and likely to break into pieces at any moment. If it was to be suggested she might date, this would instantly be dismissed. She’s not in a state where she can see herself as attractive or want to lift any of her emotional defences. Indeed, adding to her problems are a self-destructive brother and a sociopathic mother, both of whom unload their unhappiness on to her.
Anyway, the plot has someone killing off individuals associated with the Angel Bank. The signature of our serial killer is to leave behind a picture of an angel and a sprinkling of white feathers with each body (not quite chickens coming home to roost). Because our psychologist has no first-hand experience of bankers, we get to ride shotgun as she meets city grandees and their minions both at work and play. For the most part, these individuals prove to be stereotypes and have little substance. The only person allowed to emerge is a man who “retired” from banking and now runs a charitable operation. He’s both the potential sex interest and an enigma. Even though it would be obvious to anyone with eyes to see that our protagonist is in a highly fragile state, he sets about trying to break down her defences. In part, he does so by spending money but pretending not to (it’s a bit complicated). The only other character I should mention is the high-class prostitute who services the men of the City, politicians and celebrities. She’s remarkably unsophisticated, falling more into the tart-with-a-heart class rather than the escort who launches a thousand ships.
The experience of reading this book is one of watching credibility drop away as the pages turn. The body count is phenomenal as people are variously shot, stabbed or incinerated. As we get near the end, we’re actually running out of suspects as almost everyone dies off. It’s a tragedy but in the potboiler style. So A Killing of Angels is a brave attempt to create a flawed protagonist who sees what’s invisible to those around her, but the result is not a woman we can easily empathise with or root for. Perhaps the character is more convincing in the first book before she comes under attack. As it is, I’m less than convinced she has retained the right level of professionalism to command respect whether in the hospital setting or as a police consultant.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.