29 May 2015

The Killing Lessons - Saul Black

The Killing LessonsSaul Black is the amusing pen name of a rather well-known author who has thought, to hell with it, I’m going to write a rather good serial killer novel:

The blurb really ought to reconsider its decision to live in the woods

When the two strangers turn up at Rowena Cooper’s isolated Colorado farmhouse, she knows instantly that it’s the end of everything. For the two haunted and driven men, on the other hand, it’s just another stop on a long and bloody journey. And they still have many miles to go, and victims to sacrifice, before their work is done.

For San Francisco homicide detective Valerie Hart, their trail of corpses - women abducted, tortured and left with a seemingly random series of objects inside them - has brought her from obsession to the edge of physical and psychological destruction. And she’s losing hope of making a breakthrough before that happens.

But the slaughter at the Cooper farmhouse didn’t quite go according to plan. There was a survivor, Rowena’s 10-year-old daughter Nell, who now holds the key to the killings. Injured, half-frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. And that place could be even more terrifying than what she’s running from.

There’s no great mystery about Saul Black’s identity, his publisher Orion is quite happy to tell the world it’s Glen Duncan, acclaimed author of the Last Werewolf and I, Lucifer. And who, after all, can blame it? Duncan has taken to his new genre like a duck to water. His debut serial killer novel is thrilling and devastating.

Duncan’s writing is succulent, like raw steak. He really likes gnashing into a good sentence. His prose is big and brash and full of lurid melodrama. And who, after all, can resist a bit of lurid melodrama? His characters, good and evil, are haunted by own terrible desires and urges and failures, which makes for compelling reading.

The Killing Lessons is intense and violent. Brutal, actually. Right from the very beginning, Black shows the reader extreme and inexplicable violence—against characters he has lovingly taken the time to get us to care for—and it’s those terrific characters, the ones who survive and the ones who don’t, who give The Killing Lessons a classy shine.

As usual, it’s the devil who plays all the best tunes. Alpha killer Xander and his beta pal Paulie are grotesquely fascinating antags, stone-cold predators. If they weren’t so vile, they would make a strangely endearing comic partnership.

Black’s FBI heroine Valerie Hart is more bog-standard. She’s damaged goods, an alcoholic, and it’s here where Black stumbles slightly for me. The Killing Lessons contains many of the more familiar serial killer tropes from the straight-to-DVD bucket. The damaged protag who’s this close to getting taken off the case, the remote cabin the middle of nowhere, the caged woman who fights back. There’s even the elderly sheriff who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time on his day off. One plot strand, morever, stays in an uncomfortable holding pattern for the entirety of the book, until it eventually rejoins the main narrative.

However, what’s not in doubt is that Black takes these familiar moments and gives them a nail-biting energy and momentum. The climaxes come crashing one after the other as the book near its conclusion. There’s a lot to love In The Killing Lessons. It takes the reader crashing through the trees and undergrowth at full-pelt. This is genre writing at its very best. Often stylish, breathtaking, gut-wrenching, and heartbreaking, and that’s all you can ask. Saul Black, indeed.

Many thanks to Orion for the review copy. We’re delighted to say that Saul—Glen—will be talking about The Killing Lessons and, of course, his writing regime, in our Intel interview next week.