Hazel McHaffie

When children vanish …

It’s hard to imagine anything more devastating than a child being abducted, not knowing where they are, if they are even alive. Didn’t we all shudder in our beds when Madeleine McCann vanished while on holiday in Portugal back in 2007? Imagining … Fearing … Would you ever stop searching every face, every place?

But … imagine finding out that your kidnapped child has been systematically abused, tortured, degraded … Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it? I could only approach this topic from the safe distance of a writer’s analytical perspective. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have the courage to let myself creep inside the head of such a parent in order to write from their point of view, so I’m intrigued by authors who do dare such a thing.

SB Caves is one such.

In his debut publication, I know Where She Is, Francine Cooper’s daughter Autumn has been missing for ten years. Francine has been bombarded with crank calls and cruel bogus contacts, and has eventually moved house to escape, putting herself beyond the reach of all except her ex-husband and work colleagues. Or so she hoped. Then, out of the blue, she gets an anonymous note containing just five words ‘scrawled in jagged chicken scratch’: I KNOW WHERE SHE IS. She’s ready to dismiss it as yet another cruel hoax by a twisted mind, a sick creep who gets a thrill out of torturing vulnerable people. But then a young girl appears, encrusted in dirt, stinking, claiming to have sent it, and knowing things that only Autumn would know – a favourite lullaby, family names, a photo.

If you thought entering the world of Francine’s grief would be harrowing, you might well baulk at the prospect of hearing the full horror of what this ragamuffin child has to tell her. Behind the expansive opulence of wildly expensive mansions and gated communities and celebrity adulation, the truth is laden with such depths of human depravity it’s nauseating to read, never mind consider possible.

Without delivering spoilers, it’s fair to say this shocking tale falls somewhere between the reality of Jimmy Savile‘s reign of terror and the dystopian horrors of the Republic of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale And the ending leaves so many questions unanswered. Definitely not a book for the faint-hearted or insomniacs. And not a scenario I’ll be including in any of my own books, I’m quite sure of that.

, , , , , , , ,

Comments

By the way

The old brain is somewhat discombobulated by rather too many competing demands at the moment. Not a time for deep analytical reading or serious long distance writing, but  even in the busiest times, my obsessions won’t allow me to abandon writing and reading altogether. And it’s curious what life throws in your path when you’re not looking, or when you’re tramping through the autumn leaves.

Who’d have thought to find the ethics of stem cell research buried in a Kathy Reich‘s murder mystery?! Grave Secrets is billed as a chilling murder in the searing heat of Guatemala. Forensic anthropologist, Dr Temperance Brennan, is searching for the remains of twenty-three women and children, victims of a brutal massacre. She’s then somewhat distracted by the disappearance of four teenagers who go missing, not to mention being physically involved in the retrieval of a skeleton of a young woman from a septic tank. I confess I got rather bogged down in the complexity of the plot at times, but interest was reignited by the excursion into my field of ethics.

And the newspapers yielded their usual challenging real-life sensations.

In the central German state of Hesse, for example, police are investigating a woman who forged documents to pass herself off as medically qualified, to see if she’s responsible for multiple deaths. She worked as an anaesthetist/anaesthetic assistant – different papers, different claims – either way, the mind boggles! How could she not be detected in that high-risk arena over two years? It’s reported that evidence links her with repeated medical failures and botched procedures, and many more are likely. If I’d put that in a novel, the critics would deem it ‘too far fetched to be credible’!

A birth coach has resigned from an association called Doula UK, claiming she’s been driven out because transgender activists took offence at one of her Facebook posts. Reacting to the trend towards gender-neutral descriptions she wrote: ‘I am not a cervix owner … I am a woman; an adult human female … Women birth all the people.’ Up flew the activists objecting to ‘trans exclusionary comments’. Out went the mother-of-four birth coach. Hello?

A 29-year-old Christian man who uses a wheelchair after breaking his back in a climbing accident, has become the first person to be arrested and prosecuted for praying in public outside an abortion clinic in Ealing, west London. A Public Spaces Protection Order is in place creating a buffer zone around that particular clinic, forbidding anyone to show either approval or disapproval with respect to issues relating to abortion. However, the case has collapsed because there is insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction. Cue another outcry re injustice!

Never a shortage of challenges to keep the grey cells buzzing whatever else my hands and feet are busy with in this gloriously autumnal month. In those situations, what would I do? What do I think? Could I defend my position?

What would YOU say?

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

End of life planning

For personal reasons, time running out, end of life, setting one’s house in order, leaving clear instructions, tidying up loose ends … they’re all much in my thoughts this week. So an obituary jumped out and hit me between the eyes.

Marieke Vervoort. Belgian gold medal winner at the London 2012 Paralympic Games …

… ran the strap line. Followed by …

… who ended her life by euthanasia

Oh wow! Never seen it spelled out like this before. So why did this celebrity decide to end her life at the tender age of 40? (NB. A few details in the official obituary I have no means of verifying, so I can only repeat them on trust.)

Marieke Vervoort was born in Belgium, became a sporty child, and had ambitions to be a PE teacher. However, at the age of 14 she began to suffer repeated infections in her Achilles tendon. The eventual diagnosis? Reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a progressive disease which gradually crept up her body. The prognosis? Grim: tetraplegia. And it came with epileptic seizures and terrible pain; so bad indeed that she was often unable to sleep for more than 10 minutes a night. Imagine the toll of that little lot.

In spite of all this, Marieke fought back and has been acclaimed around the world. The list of her accomplishments is mind-blowing:
2006 – paratriathlon world champion
2007 – paratriathlon world champion
After this her condition worsened and she moved into wheelchair racing.
2012 – won gold medal in 100m sprint and silver in 200m at London Paralympics
2013 – set new European record in 200m and world records in 400m and 800m in Belgium
2013 – suffered a serious shoulder injury while racing, and was told by a doctor she would never return to her previous level. This made her even more determined to succeed.
2014 – won 200m and 1500m and 800m in Switzerland, setting three new world records
2014 – spilt boiling water on her legs after an epileptic fit while cooking – necessitating 4 months in hospital
2015 – won 100, 200 and 400m titles at the world championships in Doha
2016 – won silver medal in the 400m at the Rio Olympics after being violently sick for 30 hours and on a rehydration drip
2016 – won bronze in the 100m at the same games in spite of running a fever with an kidney infection at the time
2017 – paralysis reached her chest, vision deteriorated, finger function declined. She took up sky-diving in a vertical wind tunnel
September 2019 – fulfilled her wish to be driven around the Zolder race circuit in a Lamborghini Huracan
22 October 2019 – died by euthanasia in Belgium

A simple catalogue of her triumphs is wholly inadequate. The price for high achievements on the sporting field, even for the most physically able, is very steep. Here was a young woman coping with well-nigh impossible odds. Progressive paralysis, mind-altering levels of pain, terrible injuries. And still she came back fighting. What an indomitable spirit. The sheer grit and perseverance and endurance of arduous training and fitness building as well as competing, can only be dimly perceived.

But a ‘living hell’ was not on Marieke’s agenda of desirable goals. Aware of her prognosis and obvious deterioration, she signed up for euthanasia in 2008, giving her a trump card to hold in reserve. (NB. This is legal in Belgium.) Eleven years later she has finally played that ace. It would surely take a heart of stone to be unsympathetic to this courageous young woman’s decision. Interestingly, also this week, an interview with MP Sir Vince Cable suggested that the Assisted Dying Bill looks set for another hearing soon in this country. I wonder if Marieke Vervoort’s story will feature.

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Rights and wrongs

What a week! And still the debate about the rights and wrongs of Brexit agreements and arrangements grinds on … and on … and on. Conflict. Tension. Lies. Threats. Who do we believe? Who can we trust? Whose interests and rights should take precedence? Who/what are these politicians really acting for – themselves, their constituents, their party, their consciences, or what? How much is Joe Public entitled to know? What will history make of these unprecedented shenanigans?

I sigh for the simple philosophies of a McCall Smith character … Todd the surveyor in 44 Scotland Street, perhaps, reprimanding his dishonest employee caught out in a lie: ‘All of our life is based on acts of trust. We trust other people to do what they say they’re going to do.’ Hmmmmm. If only.

No one is immune to doubt and uncertainty. Those much feted and privileged royals, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, revealed in an interview this week that they’re both struggling with the conflict between their privacy and media coverage in their lives. Taxpayers contribute towards the upkeep of the monarchy, but does that entitle us to put them under the microscope? What should be considered legitimately in the public interest? Where do the limits lie? What if their mental health is less than robust? Is the loss of a parent in childhood an ‘excuse’ for the rest of one’s life? Should they have broken with royal tradition and confessed to human frailty? Is it different when a child is involved? And so on … and on.

Then there’s the Northern Ireland abortion laws, decriminalised this week, although implementation of the change is still hedged about with caveats and fraught with peril. Was it ever fair that a woman was legally prevented from having an abortion, even for a lethal fetal abnormality or when her pregnancy was the result of rape or incest? Is it right for Westminster to legislate for Northern Ireland coming into line with the United Nations rules on human rights? Should religious belief influence laws? Should someone else’s scruples limit my choices? If you’re pro-choice, this is a momentous victory for women’s human and reproductive rights; if you’re pro-life in all circumstances, it’s a sad day for Northern Ireland … Where do you stand?

Speaking of women’s rights … the jolly old debate around gender continues to blow my mind. Not only must provision be made for gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms; not only must transgender women be permitted to win the awards in female sport; but now a rapist must be recorded as female if that’s how they self-identify. What about the rights and feelings of the victims in all this? A quintessential female symbol has even been removed from sanitary towels – yes, you heard right, sanitary towels – by Proctor & Gamble, apparently because not everyone who has periods identifies as a woman. Hello?!! As a leading feminist campaigner put it: ‘We’re now moving towards the total elimination of women’s biology’ . The rights and wrongs, the questions arising, are too numerous to enumerate on this blog.

Welcome to my world – constantly asking what’s permissible, what’s morally right, what’s fair, what’s expedient? And nowhere do I probe more deeply than in my fictional characters’ lives. I have to be totally immersed in their emotions and thoughts and beliefs and experiences in order to make them authentic and believable. Their dilemmas haunt me day and night. Especially when the novel is at an early stage and I have no idea how, or ever whether, they’re going to survive or resolve or surrender to the pressures. Their pain and anguish swallow me whole.

Ideas for my twelfth novel are at an embryonic stage at the moment, so tender and fragile indeed that they might even miscarry altogether. I have several characters lurking around disturbing my peace, and eventually one group of them will send down roots and cling on with more persistence than the rest. Once they’ve claimed my full attention, and I know they’re here to stay, that’s when I’ll start to sink below the horizon of their stresses. All those what-ifs and rights and wrongs scrambling for answers. I might be gone some time!

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Messiah

Last week I shared stories about the life of an exceptional real-life forensic pathologist, Dr Richard Shepherd. When I worked at Edinburgh University I was familiar with the sight and sound of another such hugely experienced pathologist: Professor Anthony Busittil. So when I found a psychological thriller where he was mentioned in the acknowledgements, my antennae quivered excitedly. And yep, the book looked intriguing enough to buy.
Blurb: A clever serial killer at loose in London’s steamy streets, leaving no clues behind except his trademark – silver spoons in their mouths instead of tongues.
Claim: ‘Guaranteed to haunt your dreams‘. Oh yeah?
Title: Messiah.

You’d certainly need a dependable expert to guide you through the minefields of this particular tale! I can just imagine the phonecalls …
What would happen if you drove a nail through a human hand and let it take the weight of the body?
How would you go about skinning a human body?
What would the blood splatter look like if you cut out a person’s tongue while he was still alive?
What’s also fascinating to me is that Professor Andreas Lubezski, the Home Office Pathologist in the story, shares a number of similar characteristics with Prof Busittil! An accolade or mini-thanks in itself.

So, what of the book then? Well, it was the debut novel for Boris Starling back in 1999, and I’ve subsequently discovered it was dramatised for the BBC with no less than four televised sequels! Who knew?! It completely passed me by. But I guess that ongoing interest gives some indication of its fascination and pull. And indeed, the original book is a fiendishly clever novel, hooking the reader in from the very first sentence, managing to maintain the suspense through eleven gory murders, two wrongful arrests, and even twisting the knife at the very end.

If you’re like me, and haven’t seen or read it before, then
BEWARE: WHAT FOLLOWS INCLUDES SOME SPOILERS

In a nutshell, a killer is stalking the streets of London, slaughtering men to a pattern. Not a shred of incriminating evidence is left behind, just corpses, clothed only in their underpants, with their tongues expertly cut out and solid silver spoons left in their mouths. So from the outset the police know this monster is acutely forensically aware, and he has an agenda, a message. Pitting his wits against this merciless maniac is Detective Superintendent Redfern Metcalfe, a skilled investigator, famed for his ability to get inside the minds of deranged killers. Alongside him, three handpicked colleagues, later reduced to just two. But Red himself has a tortured past. He has hidden an act that could have him imprisoned if it ever came out, and his only brother is serving a life sentence for murder. Baggage enough, you’d think.

Initially Red is at a complete loss. There are no mutual friends, no mutual interests, no apparent pre-death links at all between the victims. So who is ‘Silver Tongue’? Gradually, as the macabre body count rises, the team pieces together a profile. The killer is a religious zealot, basing his murders on biblical accounts of the life and death of Jesus Christ, each victim, each manner of death, carefully selected and executed to reflect features relating to each of the apostles, each killing occurring on a specific date.

May 1st. Philip is a caterer. He’s been hanged.
May 1st. James is a bishop. He’s been beaten to death.
July 25th. James is an army officer. He’s been decapitated.
August 24th. Bart(holomew) is a leather worker. He’s been skinned alive.
September 21st. Matthew is a tax inspector. He’s been hacked to death.
October 28th. Jude is a worker with the Samaritan. He’s been clubbed to death.
October 28th. Simon is a member of parliament. He’s found sawn in half.
November 30th. Andrew is a young fish man from Billingsgate market. He’s been crucified on a Scottish Saltire.
December 27th. John was an author and journalist. He died two years before but his embalmed body has been removed from a mausoleum and draped out in the open in Highgate cemetery.
June 29th. Peter is a locksmith. He’d been crucified upside down.
December 21st. Thomas is an architect. He’s been killed by a lance and his right hand severed.

Can you see any patterns?

Well, by the time of the eleventh murder Red has unravelled the secrets of this demonic mind. What’s more, he knows he himself is next. His fear is unlike anything else he has ever experienced; he is up against an assailant who hasn’t made a single mistake in executing this whole series of murders, even when the police knew the date he would next strike, the name of the expected victim, and the likely weapon of destruction. Will Red manage to outwit this monster? Will they capture him alive? It’s mesmerising reading. I must be hardened after all this immersion in psychological thrillers because it hasn’t affected my sleep, but it has given me a sense of awe, in that the real human mind can conceive such a plot and capture it so mind-blowingly well. Hats off to Boris Starling … and Anthony Bussitil!

PS. I’ve since watched the dramatisations and, guess what? the book is way way better!

 

 

, , , , ,

Comments

Unnatural Causes

Richard Shepherd was just 9 years old when his mother died. He was in his early teens when a friend – the son of a GP – smuggled one of his father’s medical textbooks into school to spook his pals. The book was Simpson’s Forensic Medicine – and the young Richard was mesmerised.

‘Even the most amateur psychologist must deduce that my need to explore death’s presentation was the reason for my extraordinary interest in that copy of Simpson’s Forensic Medicine. More than an interest, it was a fascination. It went further than prurience and much further than the other boys’ eagerness to be horrified.’

Richard fell in love with the way this great pathologist ‘rushed to crime scenes, often in those days by steam train, and then used his medical skills to help detectives reconstruct homicides, solve the unsolvable, exonerate the innocent, argue the case in court and bring to justice the perpetrator.’

But it wasn’t until 16 years after he first entered medical school that he finally became a forensic pathologist himself. The stardust that magical book had sprinkled in his eyes as a teenager lingered, fuelling excitement when calls to examine bodies came. He loved the mixture of medical knowledge and detective work. He was firmly wedded to absolute integrity.

‘I was determined to adhere to the truth, with its beautiful simplicity, and not allow emotion, with all its treachery, to muddy that simplicity.’

But gradually experience changed his naive trust and confidence in his own principles and knowledge.

‘I became a forensic pathologist to be a seeker of truth. That meant I must stand up for the truth whatever the pressure I was placed under to massage it. I see now that this is the sort of noble thought a keen young man of limited experience might have. I had not worked on enough cases to know how malleable a concept truth is for some people, nor how open to interpretation, instinct and inclination are all truths, even those that appear to be scientific fact … I was still deluding myself that it was always possible to find a moral pathway that everyone would recognize as clear and correct.’

And the emotional payload death carried for the living, took a heavy toll. He forced himself to detach from it. One of the most harrowing times was being confronted by 137 young people from many different countries aboard a party vessel, the Marchioness, mowed down by a dredger on the Thames. 51 died. Systematically and doggedly identifying and doing autopsies on so many young healthy people had repercussions – both short and longer term.

‘It was an extremely intense week. To see so many young people here was not just unusual, it was shocking. I was aware, as though in my peripheral vision, of the intense misery of parents, fearing the worst, waiting for news.’

One such repercussion related to identification. Being in the water meant the fingers were not amenable to the usual fingerprint checks. Dr Shepherd was obliged to cut off hands and send them elsewhere for specialised testing. Some were stitched back on, but not all. And this became one of many times when the consequences of exposing the truth was seen in the fall out the pathologist was subject to. Caught in the crossfire between both warring barristers and rival pathologists, he had to account for what he did as well as what he omitted to do. Some of his cases were very high profile indeed – the Hungerford massacre, the Rachel Nickell and Stephen Lawrence murders, Harold Shipman’s victims, Joy Gardner death, the 7 July Islamic attacks in London – dragging his name into the public eye. At times he felt helpless in the face of miscarriages of justice, courtroom humiliations, and it was inevitably hard to maintain a dispassionate stance and defend the truth as he saw it.

‘When I chose this career, I thought that I would be conveying the truth about the dead to the living – who would be grateful to hear it. But, as we approached the new century, I instead was starting to feel like the faithful dog that proudly lays a stick at the feet of his master only to receive a hearty kick for his efforts.

In places the level of detail is quite lurid and not for the squeamish, but the book is beautifully written and humbly insightful. I learned some fascinating facts about interpretation of detail at the scene of crimes or in the mortuary, gleaned from forty years experience and over 23,000 autopsies. And the whole story is a salutary reminder of how much we owe to the dedication and commitment of the emergency services and out of hours work of the whole team. Gruelling hours, unwholesome tasks, unjustified criticism, and precious little thanks. I salute this honest, clever, dedicated man.

Reading the end from his own perspective, the hideous injustice of his whole career being besmirched by accusations of misconduct with respect to a dead baby’s injuries, first to the Home Office and GMC, and thence to the Medical Practitioners Tribunal Service, seems monstrously unfair. Small wonder that he was immobilized by dread, haunted by the clawing stench of decay, a hell-hole of body parts and distorted corpses, tormented by self-doubt. He seriously contemplated suicide. He was paying a heavy price for compassion and caring. It took time and compromise and many hours of flying a plane to restore a measure of equilibrium.

It’s a seeringly honest, sobering account, and I was left in awe of the writer who never gave up on searching for the real truth in spite of the personal and professional cost, determined to give understanding and a degree of closure to devastated families. Its strapline reads: The Life and Many Deaths of Britain’s Top Forensic Pathologist. A perfect summary. Justifiably a bestseller.

 

, , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Mother … ? Father … ? In-between?

Cue: Big sigh. I have a need to vent; excuse me if I do so on my blog this week.

Sometimes I feel a sense of despair when yet another claim is made for equality; it feels as if individuals and groups want it all. The activists’ mantra seems to be, ‘If you can have/do/be X, Y or Z, I must be able to too.’ And when it comes to gender issues, the boundaries are now so fluid that the demarcations are becoming well nigh impossible to pin down. On the matter of transgender rights, we’ve already had controversy over access to public toilets and changing rooms, housing in prison and on hospital wards, school uniforms, sport, Girl Guides … and we’ve all seen how, as societal expectation and scientific capability allow for increasing flexibility, rights and interests become mired in doubt and challenge.

Boiled down to the perspective of a single person, my sympathy does go out to anyone so unhappy with their biological identity that they will risk public opprobrium and undergo hugely disturbing physical and psychological procedures to ‘right nature’s wrong’. I’ve met a number of transgender women and I’ve absolutely no reason to suspect their motives for wishing to accompany me into the toilets bearing the figure of a person in a skirt in Debenhams/John Lewis/the railway station.

But when it comes to gender issues impinging on families, my allegiance swings to the innocent children caught in the crossfire. As a rule of thumb, instinct tells me that their rights should trump those of the warring adults, so I confess, I breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday when a High Court ruling decreed that in the case of a transgender father the baby’s rights should prevail.

For those who missed the story …
The transgender man in question, Freddy McConnell (a journalist with The Guardian by trade), was born female, but suffered from gender dysphoria, so elected to transition to become a man. However, he decided to retain his uterus so he could still give birth like a woman. Hmmmmmmm. A classic case of wanting cake and eating it, methinks. And yes, he went ahead and duly had a baby. But ahah! Was he now mum or was he dad? Well, apparently, the biological exclusively-female necessities having been taken care of, he wanted to be a man; he wanted to register as the father on his child’s birth certificate. Perhaps unsurprisingly the authorities objected; after all it is unprecedented. So he took them to court – as you do – for refusing to let him exercise his rights to be identified as male. The lawyers for The General Register Office, however, argued that, since he gave birth to the child (a boy), he must be registered as the mother; the child had a right to know the identity of the person who carried him. Back comes Freddy McConnell like a plucky wee terrier with an appeal higher up the legal ladder.

Result? In the High Court on Thursday, the President of the Family Division, sided with the earlier ruling, basing his decision on the common law definition of a mother. He too, said the child had the right to know the true identity of the person who had borne him, and that person was his mother. But he also pointed out that, there is a far-reaching issue underpinning this case. Now that it’s perfectly possible – medically and legally – for a person legally defined as a man to give birth, there is a pressing need for Parliament to address this whole question. Well, at least it would be a change from the current shenanigans relating to the B word, wouldn’t it?!

Now, I’m no legal eagle, but isn’t it also relevant that the birth certificate belongs to the child, not to the parent? It’s a legal document that sets out who a person is; it must record the truth. And in addition, to me it feels wrong for a baby to be an unwitting pawn in a political campaign, to be singled out for future problems, to be branded as ‘different’ from birth, before he has any chance to formulate his own views on the subject.

One possible solution springs instantly to mind … could there maybe be a special certificate for such cases, merely asking for the name of the ‘Parent’? I’d need to think more about the ramifications of such a move before promoting it outside the confines of my personal blog … and before all the heterosexual non-transgender equal-rights activists jump on that bandwagon and want ‘Parent ‘on their certificates too! Because of course, singling anyone out for special attention and different treatment immediately raises issues and hackles elsewhere.

But, hey, if a couple (Hobbit Humphrey and Jake England-Johns, to be precise, who are both circus performers living on a houseboat near Bath) can legally bring up a child as gender neutral, keeping the infant’s sex a secret even from family, to avoid the unconscious bias around the girl/boy divide until Anoush is old enough to choose how ‘they’ (parental choice of pronoun for their offspring) will be defined, then perhaps anything’s possible!

I was myself brought up with a strict moral code that encourages putting others’ comfort, welfare and interests ahead of my own. And I’m old enough now to feel a degree of nostalgia for a society that was centred on that philosophy rather than ‘I want and I will have!’. I’m with the Dowager Duchess on this one: Has the world gone completely mad?

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Stephen King, master thriller-writer

Yep, I’m sure regular followers of this blog will have been wondering, when will she ever get to the king of thrillers!  ‘America’s greatest living novelist‘! ‘When it comes to grabbing an audience by the throat and giving them no choice but to keep reading, King has no equal.

Well, I can confess, in the safety of my own blog pages, that my first experience of Stephen King proved decidedly underwhelming.  Under the Dome simply wasn’t for me. Too far fetched. Too long-winded. A ‘so-what’ kind of book. So I deliberately gave myself time to distance from that before returning to give him a second chance.

Mr Mercedes is a very different kind of tale, billed as an ‘expertly crafted example of the classic race-against-the-clock thriller’. And I’m wanting the very best examples to hone my own skills. So, bring it on. A masterclass would be very helpful.

It starts off with a massacre. A twelve-cylinder Mercedes is driven through thick fog into a concentrated crowd of desperate people all queuing at a job fair. The driver is still at large. But shortly after his retirement, Kermit William Hodges, lead detective on the case, receives a letter from the man responsible, taunting him. And we have the kernel of the story, the cat and mouse chase, each goading the other, a race to prevent another mass killing.

And yes,now I could quite understand what makes Stephen King a giant among thriller writers. It’s the whole package really, but it might be helpful if I single out a few features.

The first stroke of genius is in the first chapter. King introduces three of the victims of the Mercedes massacre in the last few hours of their lives. In a few pages he makes us care about the young cash-strapped mum Janice Cray, and her croupy baby Patti, and the kindly stranger called August who lends them his sleeping bag while they wait for the job fair to open. It puts a human face on the tragedy. We’re shocked when these three lives are obliterated by the grey Mercedes careering into them. We want justice for them.

Then there are his main characters. With simple but deft strokes he fleshes them out, unlikely heroes and psychopathic killer alike, little by little letting us see into their past, follow their present, dread their future. No overload, no long-winded description, but four dimensional.

He’s also a past master at dropping in a sinister or significant fact without padding or fanfare, so the picture builds subtly and contributes exponentially to the spine-tingling tension. He doesn’t even hide the identity of Mr Mercedes from us. In Chapter 11, Brady Hartsfield is exposed in his natural habitat, selling ice-cream to innocent kids, solving computer glitches for naive technophobes.

And amidst all the sordid facts and coarse language and accumulating horror, King even drops occasional pearls of literary delight.

She has the bright, inquisitive gaze of a crow with its eye on a freshly squashed chipmunk.

… an apartment … with rooms as big as a political candidate’s promises

She frowns, transforming her face into a walnut shell with eyes

They’re wondering if I’m riding into the Kingdom of Dementia on the Alzheimer’s Express

… she sits hunched in her bar of sun, a human parenthesis in a fuzzy blue robe

And I love the delicious irony of Retired Detective Hodges considering the possibility that Mr Mercedes is actually a woman. ‘He supposes it’s technically possible, and it would make a neat solution for an Agatha Christie novel, but this is real life.’

Unputdownable indeed. I could never aspire to his heights but I can learn from his skills.

, , , ,

Comments

Psychological control

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time on train stations of late, and browsing in the book sections on platforms while I wait … and wait … and wait. This week I was struck by the proportion of books in the top 60 which deal with psychology and crime – not just through fiction (there were several of those), but factual books.
Confessions of a Psychopath by ME Thomas
Stalkers by Rachel Cassidy
Talking with Psychopaths and Savages by Christopher Berry-Dee
Talking with Serial Killers by Christopher Berry-Dee
Unnatural Causes by Dr Richard Shepherd

Hmmm. Is this the current trend, d’you suppose/know?

Weirdly enough, I had a book for the journey on Thursday that takes psychological thriller writing to a whole new level. “A wonderful portrayal of psychological obsession at its creepy best’ as one reviewer puts it. The Girl Before by JP Delaney. Creepy serendipity? or just my mind atuned to the subject?

The setting for The Girl Before is an ultra-minimalist house in South Hendon in London: One Folgate Street. Austere, sterile, disciplined. Serene, calm, beautiful emptiness. A mausoleum of a place. Its award-winning architect and owner, Edward Monkford, insists on a huge number of rules – over 200! – for anyone leasing the property: no flatpack furniture, no cushions or rugs, nothing to be left on the floor at any time, no animals, no handrails, no books! …These rules constitute a restrictive covenant, a legal condition imposed on the property in perpetuity. Potential inhabitants must sign documents, fill in questionnaires, submit to being interviewed, before being selected to move in, and undergo repeated ongoing psychometric measurements grappling with intense ethical dilemmas – we get glimpses of the penetrating questions they’re asked throughout the book. Once in, they must undertake to keep the property completely uncluttered and regimented in line with Edward’s exacting standards. And every tenant so far has been a beautiful red-headed girl with determination and intelligence – facsimiles of Edward’s dead wife. Every one a vulnerable woman who has know grief and loss.

I’m always somewhat fascinated by the concept of the unreliable narrator, but it’s a tricky tactic to adopt in reality. This story follows two of the tenants – Emma and Jane – as they attempt to live up to the expectations of One Folgate Street, as they unravel the tragedies and stories relating to their predecessors. Because, for all its outward perfection, the house’s history is dark and sinister. Three people have died tragically – Edward’s wife and son amongst them. And Edward’s obsessive tendencies spill over into his control of the women sexually as well as mentally. He is looking for a pure relationship, unencumbered by convention, with a sense of simplicity and freedom on both sides. When it’s no longer perfect, each must be ready to move on, without regret.

Well written, cleverly plotted, interesting structure, well researched – and a runaway success. It took the author a decade or so to work out how to write the book, but she has captured something very special. It was well worth the wait.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in obsessive perfectionism, but it rings true. As does Delaney’s description of grief and loss, and the emotions around having a disabled child. Not surprising maybe as the author has herself lost a son, and has another one with a rare medical syndrome.

And the poignancy of this book is enhanced further for me by a report out the very day I finished it, about a five year high in the statistics for deaths relating to domestic violence in the UK. There is something particularly sinister about pathological behaviour behind closed doors. And Delaney has captured the essence of it in The Girl Before.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Missing …

I do love discovering a new author and devouring their books. It’s a bit like getting to know a new friend. One such recent discovery was Samantha Hayes. You might – or much more likely, might well not! – remember I posted a review of a psychological thriller by her at the beginning of August. It rang lots of bells with me, which sent me off in search of more of her books. I bought four – enough to give me a feel for the kind of writer she is, I thought.

Until You’re Mine which came out in 2013, was her first published thriller, so it was appropriate that this was the first one I read. Had her style changed over the years? Is she a predictable author? Would I find her later novels as exciting? I’m very aware that there are downsides to immersing oneself in the writings of a single author – even the best can pall somewhat with over-exposure.

Well, Hayes specialises in scary, skin-crawling tension, that’s for sure … and missing persons … and last minute unpredictable twists. I’ll give you a brief summary of each novel in chronological order of publication.

You Belong to Me (2015)
Three women have been terrified by stalkers. Two of them – Alexandra Stanford and Melanie Carter – are now dead. Both had red hair, both had infinity tattoos surgically removed from their bodies. The third one, Isabel Moore, also red haired with the same tattoo on her neck, vanished without trace.

DI Lorraine Fisher is haunted by the memory of Alexandra’s dead body. She feels responsible; Alex had reported her terror but there had been insufficient evidence for the police to do anything about her stalker, Jimmy Hardwick. Melanie’s case was different, but some time after her death, Lorraine is told about a man having hassled her too. Could this be the same stalker? Is there a serial killer on her patch?

Isabel Moore, the third woman, has hidden herself away in India, but she comes out of hiding when she receives word that both of her parents are dead; killed in a car crash. And to her horror, she learns that the driver of the car was Felix Darwin, the same controlling man who had made her life a living hell.

Three first person voices tell the story, all with serious issues. One of those voices is that of the seriously disturbed man who terrorises women. It’s scary stuff and certainly gets inside the experience of abusive control. I didn’t guess the final twist but I did find some of the action rather stretched my credulity.

In Too Deep (2016)
Gina Forrester is struggling – first her son Jacob dies; then her husband Rick disappears. Now someone is taunting her. Is she going mad? Who was watching her from inside that house in Evalina Street? Who really booked a week’s holiday in a luxury hotel for her? And what exactly is her daughter Hannah hiding from her? Everywhere she goes Gina sees ‘bits of Rick, as if he’s been blown into a million pieces‘, and she’s determined to gather them all up, piece him back together again.

Some of the clues are rather too clunky/unsubtle for my liking and I did guess the main twists well before they were revealed, but the question of how it would all resolve itself remained, and that tension kept me reading. Nothing, however, prepared me for the last few lines. (It was the final page of Until you’re Mine that blew me away too.)

The Reunion (2018)
It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. The Reunion conjures up the cold horror felt by a family when a thirteen year old girl, Lenni, vanishes. It’s 21 years ago now … and the family are in trouble once again. Her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; family rifts are unresolved; someone is sending creepy messages saying the caller knows where Lenni is. It’s time to sell the property which gave such joy and security to the children and their friends. Lenni’s sister Claire decides they’ll have one last hurrah at the house and arranges a reunion of everyone from those halcyon days – which means all those who were present when Lenni actually went missing. But the week intended for reminiscence therapy for her father and healing for them all, turns into a nightmare. Another teenager goes missing. Crimes are committed. Trust is shaken.

This one ticks lots of boxes. It covers my kind of territory: eating disorders, dementia, family dynamics and secrets. Again the ending was a surprise, but for me, the writing isn’t as good as the first one of Hayes’ books I read, and that took the edge off my enjoyment.

So, overall, Samantha Hayes gets a big tick from me for her devious plotting, and for her breathless ‘well-I-didn’t-see-that-coming’ endings. And I’ve learned something more about how to tingle spines in a domestic psychological thriller. But comparisons show me that the component that grabs my interest most is the topic under review and its ethical dimensions. Part of my mind is sorting, seething, delving beneath the surface, wondering What would I do?

 

 

 

, , , , , , , , , ,

Comments

Previous Posts