Crime fiction is an odd thing. Visit your average thriller-horror-Facebook group and you’ll regularly find people looking for books that portray the extremes of human behaviour. “The sicker the better”, as they put it. Weirdly, The Treatment by Mo Hayder is not one that pops up very often – possibly because it’s about 20 years old – but in all honesty, this book is intense. We didn’t believe in Trigger Warnings in 2022 but this book could do with a couple of them.
On a hot July night, a man is seen escaping the house of Alek and Carmel Peach after a neighbour raises the alarm. They have been kept prisoner for three days; Carmel has been locked in an upstairs airing cupboard without food or water while Alek suffers from massive head trauma. Still missing is their seven year old son Rory. The police come out in force, using everything they’ve got to trace the boy, but the trail grows cold fast. Inspector Jack Caffery sets out to find the perpetrator of the crime before he strikes again, but there is little to go on and Caffery has his own demons to battle.
Honestly? I cannot with this book.
Reading is something we tend to do for joy. This book did not bring me any, and I struggled to think of reasons to finish it. Not because it didn’t grip me – it did. The mystery is intriguing, the writing is great and the characters are compelling. It’s also deeply disturbing: without giving too much away, there are incidents of animal cruelty, child sexual abuse, incest, starvation, imprisonment, you name it. It leaves a lingering taste in your mouth, and not in a good way. Perhaps it’s because I’m the parent of a six year old boy and because we used to own labradors, but the fate of poor Rory and the family dog are heartbreaking. I read this book when it first came out, and I don’t remember it being this bad. I guess age really does put things in a different perspective.
And in a way, I wonder if it’s worth it all. Hayder is a gifted writer, probably one of the best in the genre (she unfortunately passed away of ALS last year after an amazing career that included, among other things, a stint as a ‘hostess’ in Japanese men’s clubs and portraying the buxom Miss Belfridge on Are You Being Served). She doesn’t need the gore to write a good book. And sure, people can be unimaginably cruel towards one another, but somehow this feels too grotesque to qualify as a character study (and the description of the perpetrator as schizophrenic is somewhat disconcerting; schizophrenic people tend to be shy and non-violent and they do not need the extra stigma). But it is very well-written. Hayder deftly steers the reader on a variety of misleading tangents, something many authors try but few actually manage. Caffery, as a main character, is equal parts endearing and infuriating, though I was less fond of his partner Dani, who seems to be 50% Scottish clichés and 50% lesbian clichés. And it’s well-researched too – the description of the chain of events in major police investigations is meticulous, and the way tiny clues are overlooked or hidden is infuriating but all to realistic.
I find it hard to give this book a proper star rating, so I won’t. It’s good, yes. It’s also unnecessarily cruel. Hayder is a good writer and I would have preferred the book without the extreme depravity, and if there’s a point the author wanted to make then it escapes me. We Need to Talk About Kevin was a depressing gut-punch about extreme behaviour too, but that at least felt like it wanted to tell me something more than “people are capable of incredible things, and not in a good way.” Then again, it might be a deliberate choice. Going by the Facebook groups, there’s certainly a market for that.