Bones Never Lie by Kathy Reichs (Bantam, 2014) is the seventeenth to feature Temperance Brennan. This begins with our hero called into the Cold Case Unit at the Law Enforcement Centre in Charlotte, N.C. The meeting has been triggered by a Vermont detective called Umparo Rodas who has linked one of his cases to others involving Anique Pomperleau. This is a woman who has kidnapped, tortured, and killed young girls. She managed to elude Brennan and the then lead detective, Andrew Ryan, in Monday Mourning (2004). This return to the Pomperleau case is professionally and personally embarrassing to our hero because, having worked with Andrew Ryan in Montreal, they had become occasional lovers. After the death of his teenage daughter from a drug overdose, he has dropped completely out of sight. So Temperance’s first job is to track him down and persuade him to return to civilisation and the investigation of crime. She’s not entirely sure where to start looking but Brennan’s mother, Daisy, turns out to be not only skilled with computers, but also intensely manipulative and potentially dying of cancer. She comes up with a vital piece of information as to where he might be hiding and, courtesy of a flight south of the border, the full cold case team is in play. Meanwhile Erskine “Skinny” Slidell is dealing with a new kidnapping and, of course, the resulting dead body may be tied into the serial killer’s growing list of victims. Once Ryan is back up to speed, they do what they can locally and then fly up to Canada to see if anyone remembers anything that might help then find Pomperleau before she kills again. We then come to one of these very ingenious clues that takes them down to Vermont. I read books for clues like this. They are unlikely ever to work in the real world but, on paper, you are just left with admiration for the author in having created it.
This is a particularly pleasing book in which our hero follows the trail of breadcrumbs using the tools of her trade. Whereas other fictional detectives rely on others to do the forensic work and then apply their own idiosyncratic intelligence to determine whodunnit, Brennan comes as the complete package. She has the knowledge and skills to look at the bones, observe an autopsy, and ask pertinent questions. Yes, she’s less than tactful in this book and shows less patience than usual. We can put that down to the combination of her mother’s “condition”, the reappearance of Ryan, and the general sense of disgust all feel when dealing with cases involving children and young adults. The result is a simple story of medical detective work, told in uncluttered prose which zips us along to the necessary melodramatic confrontation, followed by the debriefing explanations and an epilogue. It’s a very professionally put-together murder mystery involving a serial killer.
This is not to say the book is without flaws. For example, there’s no reason for Brennan’s mother to turn out to be so impressive. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time we’ve met the mother (her father has been dead a long time). I can understand why Kathy Reichs might want to introduce the character. It gives more depth to the general understanding of Brennan. But it would have been sufficient for the plot to stop at the psychological condition and cancer. Police forces can sometimes be allowed to shine when serial killers are threatening local children. I also thought the shooting of one individual was unnecessary. Yes, it does explain why no-one among the usual crew is answering their phone at the critical time, but I’m not convinced it fits comfortably into the Slidell character arc. So, overall, Bones Never Lie is a very good story with lots of interesting medical matters demystified. On balance, I think the flaws relatively minor, leaving this book on my recommended list.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Hexed by Heather Graham (Harlequin Mira, 2014) is the lucky thirteenth in the Krewe of Hunters series. It starts with Craig Rockwell as a young man with his first experience of having a ghost talk to him. As a result of what she says, he finds her dead body. This diverts him from a possible career as a football player and into law enforcement. Now, thirteen years later, he’s well-established in the FBI and applying for transfer to the Krewe of Hunters because another body has turned up in his home town. It’s been laid out in exactly the same way as the body he found. Needless to say, the Krewe has done its homework on this man and his application for a transfer is accepted. This sends him back to the Salem area (and into danger of romantic entanglement). As he drives into town, he almost knocks down Devin Lyle, the joint heroine and romantic interest. Remember that no coincidence should appear on its own, so she’s just discovered another body (it’s the same signature so the couple are already on the right track) and she can see ghosts too (in magical terms, three coincidences is a charm). And, yes, this is the third body with the Pentagram Killer’s signature! With the triple stars in alignment, it can’t be long before this pair are a couple.
And what better news than this is my third book by this author! Thematically, we have this specialist group of people recruited to an FBI unit to deal with the more serious crimes where it’s difficult to get a result. They beat the usual systems for investigation because they can talk with ghosts. For this to work as a plot device, all the victims they interview must, for some reason, have failed to see their killer(s). They may be shot from a distance by a sniper, or attacked from behind, or poisoned by anyone who had access to their food out of sight, and so on. This leaves the field open for a classical police procedural with a supernatural twist. I actually like the formula because there’s little artificiality about the interaction between the sensitives and the ghosts. The relationships are almost exactly the same as human to human and, as in the real world, the ghosts are just as unreliable as human witnesses. The result is marginally more information available to the investigators than might otherwise have been the case, but there’s still a need for proper investigative skills. The second in the series, however, was overburdened with history that was dispensed in fairly indigestible lumps as spiels to tourists on a ghost walk. Indeed, this book threatens to go the same way with one dollop of information thrust at us in the same way. However, all the other history which is relevant (and a surprising amount is for the solution of this puzzle) is more carefully parcelled out as discussion, extracts from history books, and so on. It’s relatively more acceptable in this format. Because we’re in Salem, we’re deeply into the history of witchcraft and the way in which the trials were manipulated to protect the reputation of the men and dispose of women who could make their lives difficult. It’s a very interesting way to show how deeply entrenched misogyny has been in the American psyche.
From the outset, the book sets out to make Devin as talented as the formal members of the Krewe. She’s quickly talking with Aunt Mina, her recently deceased relative, and preparing to hobnob with those who died centuries ago. Once you get into the groove, all ghosts prepared to talk to you are the same. Of course, some ghosts of choosy and decide they want nothing to do with some humans. If approached by the wrong type, they just disappear. It’s a useful talent I wish I’d developed for use at social gatherings. Anyway, through a combination of dreams, discussions with the dead, and human intuition, our team narrows the pool of suspects to a relatively small number who have recently bought a weapon of the right type, have some connection to “witches” (both current and historical), and who may drive dark-coloured SUVs. Then it’s down to trying to check alibis both thirteen years ago and now. No-one is excluded as the net is thrown out across that part of Salem society which traces its roots back to the days of the original trials and may have an interest in Wiccan or other non-standard supernatural beliefs. When it comes in a dramatic climax, the answer is rather pleasing.
Although three ghosts do play a moderately important role in the solution of this serial murder case, the supernatural profile is slightly lower in this book than the other two I’ve read. Since the basis of the series is the expanding group of ghost whisperers, there have to be ghosts for them to talk to. In this instalment, I think the balance between conventional police procedural and supernatural is about right. Of course this requires a better quality of puzzle for the main players to solve and, again, this book has a good puzzle. My only gripe is not so much the romance which is within reasonable bounds, but the extent of the coincidence that Devin turns out to be not only a natural whisperer, but also an investigator who gets to the right answers. Rather than watching two relatively inexperienced whisperers solve the crime(s), it would be more interesting to see how the experienced approach the investigation of one of these crimes. I suppose this would also throw off the mandatory thriller ending when our hero suddenly finds herself in serious trouble and has to be rescued. In theory, the experienced investigators make the collar and retire to the nearest drinking establishment for several glasses of appropriate spirits. So I report The Hexed as being a good example of these romance-tinged supernatural police procedurals.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 (2011) is the first of three made-for-television adaptations of novels by Keigo Higashino. Rikako Yuki (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a mystery novelist who’s suffering from writer’s block. After the breakdown of her marriage, she’s been growing closer to a man who works as a freelance journalist. Of late, however, his work has been drying up and debts have become more of a problem. In their last meeting, he tells her he thinks someone may be targeting him. When she asks why he feels threatened, he’s very noncommittal. When he calls her that night, she’s in a meeting with her editor, Fuyuko Hakio (Mari Hoshino) and feels unable to come out to meet with him. The following morning, she’s woken by the police. Her lover has been found dead in the river. It’s not certain whether this is an accident or suicide. Naturally, for all his problems, she doesn’t believe he would have committed suicide. She favours the idea it was murder, but has no idea who would have motive. She therefore decides to investigate. In part, she’s doing it to protect the reputation of her dead lover, but she also hopes it might help her break the writer’s block, i.e. give her a story to write. This latter reason makes her editor supportive and she decides to offer practical help as and when required.
When our now formally anointed amateur detective goes round to her ex-lover’s apartment, she finds his sister removing all his things. She begs everything connected with his writing, hoping to find some clue in his latest research. With everything packed, a carrier comes to take the boxes away, but this is interrupted by the arrival of a young lady. She identifies herself as a photographer who was working with the man on a story. She wants to recover some of her photographs. With everything already packed, it’s arranged she will come round to collect the material after it’s been delivered. Meanwhile, Fuyuko Hakio has arranged for our detective to visit her lover’s publisher. While there, there are hints of a boating accident about a year earlier in which her lover had injured his leg. This ties in with an entry in her lover’s diary which shows a meeting with Takuya Yamamori (Ken Ishiguro), the president of a large gym who had sponsored the boat trip which led to the accident. Ever quick off the mark, Fuyuko Hakio lines up an appointment but, when they arrive at the gym, there’s a delay. To fill in the time, they are given a special short session working out. The actual meeting with the director proves slightly inconclusive. When she arrives home, our detective immediately sees the boxes which were delivered have been opened. All her lover’s most recent material has been removed.
This sets us off and running fairly quickly through an interestingly complex plot. The only time it slows down is for a flashback showing exactly why our mystery author has writer’s block. As a mystery, it doesn’t seem to be going very far very quickly until we get to the last death when there’s a most interesting alibi for everyone who might have done it. It’s moments like this that make the author of the source novel, Keigo Higashino, so interesting. Up to this point, we seem to have a fairly routine serial killer who’s systematically killing off everyone connected with that boating accident (the title of the book/film is a reference to the eleven character message sent to each victim). But this last death not only fails to fit the pattern. It also seems to be “impossible” because there’s no doubt where everyone is at the relevant time. So this leaves me with good news and not-so-good news. My dislike of coincidence in a work of fiction is well documented in all these reviews. There are times when it’s unavoidable to get everything started off, e.g. that two people just happen to get on the same train, but in the main, I find the use of coincidence rather depressing. This time, there’s a clear explanation for the coincidence, so Keigo Higashino and his scriptwriter were aware of the problem. Ecept explaining it doesn’t make it any better. That said, this is one of these stories which deals with the grey in human relationships. In fiction, it’s always easier when the author decides to paint characters and situations in black and white. We readers or viewers are left with very simple moral choices about who to sympathise with. Here, very little is morally cut-and-dried. Indeed, the more you look at the picture which finally emerges as all the relevant people confess what happened, the less you want to make any decisions about it at all. I suppose that’s what makes 11 Moji no Satsujin or 11文字の殺人 a very good story and explains why our mystery writer will probably join in the conspiracy of silence.
For other work based on Keigo Higashino’s writing, see:
Broken or The Hovering Blade or Banghwanghaneun Kalnal or 방황하는 칼날 (2014)
Brutus’ Heart or Brutus no Shinzo or ブルータスの心臓 (2011)
Bunshin or 分身 (2012)
Galileo or Garireo or ガリレオ
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 1 and 2
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 3 and 4
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 5 and 6
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 7, 8 and 9
Galileo 2 or ガリレオ (第2期) (2013) episodes 10 and 11
Galileo: The Sacrifice of Suspect X or Yôgisha X no kenshin (2008)
Midsummer Formula or Manatsu no Houteishiki or 真夏の方程式 (2013)
The Murder in Kairotei or Kairoutei Satsujin Jiken or 回廊亭殺人事件 (2011)
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 1 to 4
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 5 to 8
Naniwa Junior Detectives or Naniwa Shonen Tanteida or 浪花少年探偵団 (2012) episodes 9 to 12
Platinum Data or プラチナデータ (2013)
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 1 to 5
Thursday Theatre Keigo Higashino Mystery or 東野圭吾ミステリーズ (2012) episodes 6 to 11
White Night or Baekyahaeng or 백야행 : 하얀 어둠 속을 걷다 (2009)
The Wings of the Kirin or Kirin no Tsubasa: Gekijoban Shinzanmono or 麒麟の翼 ～劇場版・新参者～ (2012)
For a Galileo novel, see Salvation of a Saint.
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.
Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz (St Martin’s Press, 2013) demonstrates the old adage that the more you struggle, the faster you sink. So off we go with a mystery thriller that meticulously follows the formula, namely that in the first act of the book, we’re introduced to all the relevant characters including the suspects, that in the middle act, there’s considerable confusion as to which of the suspects may be to blame, and that in the final act, we get an answer, then a twist. If possible, there must be broad, easy-to-understand motives on display, namely, revenge for wrongs caused and a burden of guilt among those who understand what was done.
So at the outset, we’re given a ringside seat as Daniel Brasher, a counsellor, works a room of criminals in San Francisco. They have all chosen to go through a course of group therapy in which they learn to confront their inner demons and become better people. If they resist, their probation is revoked and they go back to jail. Not surprisingly, the attendees are deeply ambivalent to the reality of the course. It’s the price they must pay for early release but they would rather not be made to think about the crimes they have committed, let alone decide they would like to reform. For the book to succeed, we must believe in each of the six individuals who’ve signed up for the latest course. More importantly, we must find Brasher’s approach to counselling credible. The exercise in character creation is not unsuccessful. I’m prepared to believe such people would enroll in a course. But I’m not inclined to believe in the somewhat provocative, not to say, aggressive approach adopted by Brasher. We’re expected to believe this motley crew would submit to this form of intellectual and emotional bullying, that it would crack open their shells of feigned indifference, and enable new human beings to emerge from the chrysalises which wrap them while they decide whether to become butterflies. Except, of course, one of them may be a murderer which complicates the relationship our hero has with the group.
The set-up is not without interest. For reasons that need not concern us, Brasher picks up a pile of mail from the boxes of his place of work. Among them, he finds a letter addressed in crabbed hand to an unknown individual. When he Googles the addressee, he discovers the man has been murdered. At this point, he calls the police and our highly experienced female detective arrives. The note is considered interesting but unilluminating. Because this is a thriller, no-one thinks to go through the rest of the bundle of mail. Hence it’s only later he thinks to check. Needless to say, he finds two more notes and this pitches him into the middle of a serial killer’s game. The killer is warning people to admit their guilt or go to their doom. Because this is a mystery thriller, there’s nothing obviously linking these nominated victims and, when they finally do track one down, she has no idea what she might have done to deserve such a death threat. It’s only towards the end of the book that the “crime” is identified and the scope of those at risk realised. At first, there’s no obvious link between any of Brasher’s clients and this “crime”. This is only revealed as we come into the final therapy session for the group.
So “Ask Me No Questions, and I’ll” Tell No Lies has quite an interesting point to make about the phenomenon of guilt and the layers of hypocrisy which people erect to insulate themselves from understanding the harm they do to others. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest a potentially significant socio-political subtext is in play. Unfortunately, the potential is rather dissipated by crudely drawn caricatures and reaches a somewhat strange conclusion which, I suppose, we’re to take as a form of ironic form of delayed justice. I think there is actually a good book in this set of plot ideas, but not as written. Yes, the mystery plot has potential, and there are chases and fights as is required in a thriller, but the whole is not as coherent or credible as it might have been.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Of Fever and Blood by Sire Cédric (Publishers Square, 2013) is distributed in English by Open Road. Sire Cédric has published eight titles (with another due shortly) including L’enfant des cimetières (2009) which won the Masterston prize, this book, De fièvre et de sang (2010), which won the Polar prize at the Cognac festival and the first Cinécinéma Frissons prize, and Le jeu de l’ombre (2011). From this brief history, you’ll understand this author writes about monsters, madness and, without irony intended, rock music. In his novels and short stories, he’s influenced by Clive Barker and Stephen King, having moved from a career in journalism and translation, to writing police procedurals, often with a supernatural element. Le premier sang (2012), the second in this series, has been nominated for the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire and the Prix de l’Embouchure 2013.
Of Fever and Blood is the first of two supernatural thrillers featuring Inspectors Eva Svärta and Alexandre Vauvert. Eva Svärta is a profiler based in Paris. She specialises in cults and anything with an occult connection. We’re immediately pitched into the climax of their hunt for a kidnapped girl. Eva Svärta is assisting in a serial killer case being handled by the Homicide Unit in Toulouse where Alexandre Vauvert works. Structurally, this means the action kicks off in high gear with the pair breaking into a remote farmhouse — none of the niceties of search warrants and backup from SWAT for this pair. They are in (relatively) hot pursuit of the latest kidnapped young woman and are not inclined to let bureaucracy stand in their way. That’s why the two men found at the farm end up dead (well, probably) and the young woman is rescued. Such a good outcome allows the press to senationalise the whole episode as one involving vampires (it’s all about the blood, you see) who’ve been stopped (young women in the area can feel safer) and this positive reaction gives the senior echelons in the policing agencies the excuse to look the other way on the number of different laws broken and the deaths of the two “suspects”.
Not surprisingly, things don’t go back to normal. Just over a year later, there are two new deaths in Paris which have the same hallmarks from Toulouse. Vauvert is also tempted to return to the farmhouse where supernatural and natural events collide in a rather interesting way (technology is highly relevant here). This prompts our two characters to communicate with each other. They always were unhappy at the summary way their first case was wrapped up. Questions were left unanswered. Now’s their chance to continue the investigation. Except, of course, the two men they killed. . . Perhaps they were Renfields, working for one or more people struggling with the delusion of vampirism. Or just maybe, there’s a real supernatural issue to investigate and resolve here.
Half the interest and fun of this book is the way in which stolid police procedural meets something not covered in the standard training manuals. At one level, we’ve got the usual tropes at work. There’s the structural sexism blighting the career of Svärta. More importantly, there are some seniors officers who’ve seen some inexplicable things in their long careers and are not going to be overly critical if the new generation of officers get caught up in something similar and have to fight their way out, leaving a few bodies behind. And so on. Why should France’s finest have such latitude? Because what they find at the farm and subsequent murder scenes shows a highly organised approach to torturing the twenty-four women kidnapped (or more — keeping count may be important) and draining them of their blood. This signals the most critical failure in the initial investigation. Our heroes never did discover exactly what happened to all the blood.
All this should tell you Of Fever and Blood is a fascinatingly direct voyage into a slightly gothic version of grand guignol. The style is simple and, allowing for the usual melodramatic French sense of atmosphere, unflinching when it comes to describing the way in which the women are killed. We’re then off into slightly more conventional territory with the mythology of vampires and their companion wolves. All of which manages to capture attention early and then ride the curiosity factor through to the end. It’s a real page turner as matters grow increasingly dark for our police heroes. This is not to say the story is stunningly original. In this particular niche which, for these purposes, I’ll describe as supernatural horror and fantasy, there are only a certain number of ways in which an author can manipulate the plot elements. But the results here are carried off with remarkable élan. Given the amount of blood spilled, we’re in early Clive Barker territory. This is not to say the book or its style feels dated. Rather that it’s quite refreshing to find someone getting back to the basic craft of graphic supernatural horror. Put simply Of Fever and Blood is a riveting example of an intelligent plot and ruthlessly efficient pacing in a gore-soaked police procedural. I recommend it.
For a review of the sequel, see The First Blood.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
This is my first look at Andrea Kane who comes with quite a reputation. Let’s start with the prose which is elegantly stripped down. Personally, I have no preference on where an author should locate the prose on the dense to minimalist scale. All I’m interested in is the quality of the product as it appears on the page. This is one of the times when a more elliptical approach fits the thriller genre and gives us a fast, page-turning pace. It has moments tending towards melodrama but that’s largely kept under control. So at a craft level, this author proves her worth with a piece of writing that’s technically very proficient.
So now on to The Stranger You Know (Harlequin Mira, 2013) which is the third in the Forensic Instinct series. Please forgive me for getting the characters straight before discussing the nature of the book. In alphabetical order we have Marc Deveraux, ex-Seal, Claire Hedgleigh, a psychic, Hero, a dog, Kyle Hutchinson, current FBI agent, Patrick Lynch, retired FBI agent, Ryan McKay, IT wizard, Casey Woods, a forensic psychologist and leader of the titular Forensic Instinct team, and Yoda, the primitive AI. For the avoidance of doubt, sexually, the pairings are between Casey and Kyle, Claire and Ryan. This author cut her teeth on writing romance and, to some extent, it shows in this thriller. That’s not to say this is any less thrilling. The author subjects a series of women sharing the same physical features to kidnap, rape and murder. This is an interesting choice of plot by a female author. Central to events is a convicted rapist/murderer who sits in jail and manipulates events though a proxy. This felon’s wife shows all the features of abuse and continues to be dominated by her physically absent husband. Taken as a whole, I have the sense the book is portraying women as essentially weak and prone to be stalked and victimised.
Let’s take one step back. One view of the world is that women are consistently humiliated and abused. Patriarchal cultures objectify females, encouraging the view that dominance by males is the norm. Indeed, until laws were changed over the last one-hundred-and-fifty years in Western societies, women were the property of their fathers until married, when the right of custody was handed over to husbands. The right of women to own their own property and to vote are relatively modern developments, not necessarily resulting in realignments in the average man’s view of the women he meets. Fairly recent American research shows about 18% of women are the victims of attempted or full rape at some point during their lives. This is not necessarily reported because the reality of law enforcement tends not to support women who complain of non-consensual sexual activity. Without rape shield laws to protect women who are themselves put on trial when a rape case comes to court, the number of complaints will continue to be low. So when a modern female author writes about a serial rapist and murderer, she’s simply reflecting the risks a significant proportion of women run during their everyday lives. When a female author describes an abused wife whose personality has been beaten into submission by a controlling partner, she’s describing the experience of perhaps a majority of women in relationships.
Back to this book, I always have a problem with books purporting to be “real” yet portraying supernatural powers as effective law enforcement tools. Claire has a psychic hotline to women being raped. She can literally pick up the telephone and direct the police to the area in which they will find the bodies. When she fails to have a vision, say because she’s distracting herself by having sex, she beats herself up. This is not to say she can ever stop the attacks from occurring. Obviously, she only responds to the emotional output as the attack is underway. But she nevertheless feels guilt. Well, regretfully, this entire plot thread leaves me absolutely cold. If an author decides to use characters with supernatural abilities, she’s working with systems of magic that fit into the fantasy milieu. Magic doesn’t fit into a milieu in which we’re supposed to be dealing the the brutal reality that about 18% of American women are at risk of being raped during their lives.
Now treading carefully to avoid spoilers, towards the end of the book, the malevolent males have come to the critical point in their fiendish plan. For this plan to work, it requires one of the women to act in a way that can only be described as completely irrational. So this female author has the relevant female character, dare I say it, act like an irrational woman. Perhaps I’m not the right person to be reviewing this book. As a man, I’m deeply offended that this author should force her characters to act with stereotypical stupidity. Why can an author not portray women as having intelligence and emotional fortitude? It’s so frustrating to reach a pivotal moment in the plot and find the author deciding to create a completely fake tension when the inherent situation was already tense enough. The method adopted to resolve the situation would have worked just as well without the absurd decision. Indeed, it would have allowed a woman to show her strength and lead the charge against the malevolent men and kick their butts — an outcome that could have been inspiring to women everywhere. Having to leave it to the men in the team to rescue the situation is just reinforcing the gender stereotype of male superiority.
So The Stranger You Know is successful in the first half, using the inverted crime device to introduce the jailed psychopath, and leading up to a tense and and interesting situation. Indeed, some of the detail of the plot is excellent. But the book drops off the cliff in the second half and is a tragedy for this time. A book like this would have fitted comfortably into the publication lists of the pre-feminist 1950s, but publishing it today strikes me as sending entirely the wrong message to women readers. Andrea Kane can write great prose but has written a book without any feminist sensibilities to help shape the discourse in a direction more positive for gender equality.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.