Weirdly enough, Goodreads gave me Calvin and Hobbes in their other-readers-also-enjoyed-selection. And I get it. There is never a bad time for Calvin and Hobbes, but I definitely need some eye bleach after this one.
London, 1999. During construction work on an empty lot, the dead body of a woman is found. Her body is severely decomposed and it takes the police a while to identify her. More bodies are found. They all belong to strippers, prostitutes, drug addicts – people who are loved by few and not reported missing within a few days. Their bodies all show the same type of mutilation. As the police race to stop the madman from striking again, another woman goes missing…
Okay, so not the most original plot. Cops. Missing women. Rape and torture and dead bodies. It’s been done before and since countless times, to varying degrees of success. On the gross-out scale, this one ranks way above average. Brace yourself: this book is gory and pretty twisted. It’s got it all, and by all I mean the trifecta of torture, rape and murder. Live birds are inserted into victims’ chests. At one point, the killer cuts out a pair of breast implants and leaves them wobbling on the victim’s stomach, like the world’s most fucked up jell-o. An electric hand saw is used to great effect.
It’s almost a pity because the book doesn’t really need all that gore. I know some Cannonballers hated it because of the gore, the gratuitous violence, and the fact that one of the characters has shit for brains (she does). These are valid points. Still, I think it’s actually a very good book if you can look beyond that. Sure, not everything about it is great – subtlety is not on the menu – but the writing is pretty decent. Hayder has a good eye for the city of London, describing the opulent, the run-down and anything in between with a few deft words, painting the city in all its vibrancy without distracting from the plot. The main character, Jack Caffery, has a stupid name and is par for the course – tortured by childhood trauma, attractive and incapable of maintaining healthy relationships – yet at the same time, he’s got more depth than most of his counterparts in other novels. He’s a mess, he screws up, but he’s good at his job without being a savant. His relationship woes are only half his problem; the other half is definitely caused by his drama-seeking girlfriend. He does old-fashioned detecting. He sometimes makes mistakes. He works well with some of his colleagues, less with others. Things get lost in the mix. Leads go nowhere. He picks himself up and moves on.
There is a subplot about Jack’s girlfriend Veronica, which is intriguing if somewhat distracting, and about the disappearance of his brother Ewan when they were children, which works a lot better. The villain is over-the-top evil, but genuinely creepy. The main love interest is a bit too manic pixie dream girl, but we hadn’t heard of those in 1999 yet so I’ll give Hayder a little leeway. There is also a Bad Cop detective who is part Late Nineties Chav, part Tory Old Boy. He is annoying and while he serves the plot well, I mostly just found myself wishing the author had just fleshed him out a little more, made him a little less despicable in every way.
This novel is a reread for me, though I read it in the early oughts and didn’t remember much about it when I started it. Hayder is an author I keep returning to when she publishes a new book, but I often forgot about her after that. And that’s a shame, because in the convoluted thriller genre she was a standout. When I heard that she had passed away from ALS last year (yeah, fuck you too 2021) I figured I would give her books another go, and this is her first one. I would only hope others will follow, because there are a few gems in there that deserve more recognition. If you’re into thrillers and you haven’t read hers yet, I urge you to do so.
But maybe wait an hour or so after dinner.