How, exactly, do you decide whether the book you’ve just read is good? I can appreciate books that I struggled my way through, and I’ve torn my way through books that I hated. Clearly enjoyment is one factor and reward is another, but the two books I’ve read in the past week or so kind of threw me for a loop. One of them is right up my wheelhouse. The other, not so much. Yet I ended up loving the latter and disliking the former and I’m somewhat baffled as to why.
The Final Girl Support Group **
The first book I read was The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix. In it, a group of women form a therapy group. They’ve all been subjected to gruesome murders from schlocky 1980s horror movies, and frequently their sequels, and the media knows them as ‘final girls’. When one of their own is killed one member, Lynette, takes it upon herself to find out who did it and keep the others safe.
I figured this book would be a fun, quick read. It’s right up my alley: a fast-paced thriller with a pop culture tie-in and decent writing. I ended up hating it. It bored me. It’s the sort of book where I kept going hoping it would get better and in the end I just skimmed the last chapters because I’d gotten so far that I might as well finish it. I can’t really put my finger on why I didn’t like it, but most of it probably has to do with the characters: they’re not so much flat as they are unconvincing and unappealing. Lynette, in particular, is grating, though aside from the fact that she’s ALWAYS planning ahead and still ALWAYS wrong, I can’t really put my finger on it. The other characters are generally not much better: disjointed and dislikeable.
I’ve read Horrorstör by the same author, and though I wasn’t very impressed by that one I at least enjoyed it. The Final Girl Support Group got much better reviews, and objectively I can see why. It’s probably a decent book and it probably deserves more than two stars. It just didn’t resonate with me at all. It happens.
Perfect Remains ****
Perfect Remains by Helen Fields, on the other hand, is a book that I shouldn’t have liked as much as I did. It’s overly long. It’s not particularly original. It’s focused on the sort of women torture porn that’s dubious to say the least, made worse by the sob story the main character tells, which in the post #metoo-era reads as tone-deaf and uncomfortable. I still ended up loving every page of it.
Inspector Luc Callanach (French mother, Scottish father) has left his position at Interpol and joins the Edinburgh constabulary as a detective. He’s still getting to know his team when he is called out to the Highlands to investigate a murder: somewhere far off the beaten path, the burned remains of a missing woman are found, with only a tooth and a piece of clothing nearby to provide clues as to who she is. She is soon identified as Elaine Buxton, a successful lawyer who has gone missing days before. As her family mourn her and the police hunt for her killer, the real Elaine sits in a basement, locked in by a sadistic torturer.
So far, so cliché. Many things about this novel are things you’ll find in at least half the books within the genre: the damaged loner-with-a-past-detecive, the torture porn, the attractive sidekick, you name it. Yet it manages to be refreshing at the same time. For one, it’s surprisingly light on rape (it features somewhat in a secondary plot, but generally this book is pretty rape-free). Callanach, who ticks a whole slew of clichés on his own, is not actually a bad character: he’s diligent but not superhuman, he’s not great at managing his team but not the worst either, and he solves the crime mostly through good old-fashioned detective work. Some leads go nowhere. Some clues are missed. The villain is precise, but not superhuman. He’s also super fucking creepy and though he occasionally veers into camp territory, he’s not dissimilar to the kind of man – lonely, middle aged, and very impressed with his own cleverness – we all know. He’s not into rape or I’d call him an incel.
And while the book might not pass the Bechdel test, the female characters are rounded, convincing, competent and while they like Callanach (Fields wastes no time in pointing out how handsome he is because of course) they don’t throw themselves at his feet en masse; he respects them and they respect him because they work well together. It’s refreshing. And sure, there are a couple of plot points that this book probably could have done without. A secondary story about a missing girl and abandoned babies should probably have been cut entirely because the execution is clumsy and trite. Barring that, I was pleasantly surprised.
This book is the first in a series and if the next volumes are as good as this one, then I’m game.