Tag Archives: psycho-killer

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

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The world stops for you when you’re pretty. That’s why women spend billions on crap for their faces. Their whole life, they’re the center of attention. People want to be around them just because they’re attractive. Their jokes are funnier. Their lives are better.

Well, there might be some downsides. Pretty Girls is a white-knuckle thriller that will keep you turning the pages long after you should really have gone to sleep. Do not read this while on a train. You will miss your stop.

The story is told from three alternating perspectives. Claire Scott, newly free of that nasty ankle-monitor, has a pretty good life. 38, in great shape, no kids, a studly, attentive hubby who makes much more than a decent living, cool digs. What’s not to like? After a celebratory dinner out, Paul wants to do the nasty in an adjacent alley, way out of character, but, whatever. But sorry, no nookie for you guys. An armed, tattooed criminal element sort robs them. Things go too far and Paul winds up on the sidewalk, tinting the pavement with considerable quantities of red, and the game is afoot. What Claire discovers in going through her late mate’s computer files after the funeral will rock her world.

Lydia Delgado’s life is somewhat different. Single mother, 41, struggling to get by, alienated from most of her family, runs a dog grooming business. Her past would not look very nice on a resume. She’d hit rock bottom a while back and lived there for a spell, with a pick and shovel. But these days she is respectable. Owns a dog-grooming business. Met her pretty nice bf in a 12-step program. Her teenage daughter is a peach. Lydia is on the wrong side of pudge these days, with an addiction to the sort of culinary drugs that come in crinkly bags at supermarkets. Life’s a bitch and then you diet. Lydia used to be a looker. Not surprising, really. Her sisters were easy on the eyes too, but one vanished when she was 19, never to be seen again, and the other one just saw her husband get killed.

Sam is a determined sort, bulldog with a bone. He never believed the official cop line that his Julia had simply run away. So he dedicated his life to finding out what had really happened to his eldest daughter. It cost him his marriage, and maybe even more. We see the progress of Sam’s investigation through his journals, from the time when he was on this quest. Claire and Lydia’s adventure takes place today.

The two sisters join forces to continue searching for the truth about Julia’s disappearance, and must face the consequences of Claire learning some very disturbing secrets about her husband.

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Karin Slaughter – from her FB pages

Karin Slaughter is not new to the best-seller lists, having sold more than 30 million copies of her crime books books in 32 languages. She was born in a small Georgia town and now lives in Atlanta, where Pretty Girls is set. Her books include six in the Grant County series and nine in the Will Trent series, set in Atlanta. She was working on another book entirely when the notion for this one occurred to her in dream, so she checked in with her publisher, put the planned book on the back burner and dove into this one.

There are several elements at work here. In a book of this sort, if you are not engaged by the characters, the rest does not much matter. Lydia certainly has had her troubles in the past, but she is pretty supportable now, finding her best self in this worst of times. Claire makes us wonder how she could have buried her head in the sand for so long, ignoring what look like warning signs to us. But in wondering, it is worth keeping in mind that we are all sand-dwellers, from the neck up at least. Maybe it is an innate and useful skill to be able to simply ignore warning signs of peril. If we recognize them then we might have to do something about them, which entails personal risk, of either physical or emotional harm. Most of the time most of us prefer to keep a lid on things. Thus we live to ignore another day. So it feels entirely credible that reasonable people can overlook behavior that might stand out to an external observer. Particularly in Claire’s case, as she has tried to keep her head down in most situations for most of her life. We can see her vulnerability, however cloaked it may have been, and can easily feel for her. In addition we see the characters develop over the course of the tale, Claire moving from passive to assertive and Lydia moving from nobody to a sort of anti-hero. Family dynamics plays a major part in the sisters’ struggle, both to find the truth and to find a way back to sisterhood across a very large distance. Check.

The story must be engaging. Will Claire and Lydia find out what really happened to their missing sister? Does Sam? Do we care? If you can’t empathize with this as a driving force, it must be because you are too busy torturing kittens. Check.

Pace must be maintained. Slaughter must have a metronome that is set for increasing tempo. Check.

The baddie must be truly scary, and up to some really awful stuff. You have no idea. Check

The hero/heroine(s) must face believable peril. Is it possible that one or more of our core three might come to harm of the terminal sort? You betcha. Check

A thriller is never without a bit of misdirection, a few fish-hooks hoisting red-herrings for us to consider. Yep. Get your scaling tools ready. Check.

And there is that old favorite, the twist. Let’s just say that Chubby Checker would be pleased. Check. Wait, what’s that? My advisors inform me that not everyone will appreciate my lame boomer refs, so, fine, whatever. For you kids out there, ok, rewind. Start over. Twists. Let’s just say that after reading this book, I was in need of a good neck brace. Ok? Sheesh.

Finally there is the issue of payload. That is the extra information one learns about the world in reading a work of fiction. I suppose there is a bit of that here. I have no idea if the awfulness that is depicted in Pretty Girls (aside from Paul’s questionable taste in décor and labeling) has a real-world basis. Although it does seem that if one can imagine a particularly grotesque form of depravity, there is probably someone, somewhere who is practicing it right now, and with so many folks on the planet, probably more than a few. So if the book is highlighting some actual form of human awfulness, then bad-a-bing. Check

Gripes. You knew there would have to be one or two. The title, Pretty Girls suggests that those on the 10 side of life are more at risk than those closer to the 1 end of things. The theme of prettiness is noted with frequency early on, in comments on the attractiveness of some and the unattractiveness of others. Slaughter seems interested in giving some serious thought to how people react to beauty and to how the beautiful react to the world. Certainly there is peril about for those blessed with pleasing countenances, whether it comes from a wicked witch or the ravages of time. She keeps up the mentions for a while, sometimes offering actual insight. But then it seems to fade, as if she had run out of things to say about prettiness, until it is brought back into the spotlight for a final bow or two. Like, oh, the title is Pretty Girls. I guess I should put something in here to give that some closure. It looked totally like an afterthought. I thought this could have been better handled, maybe spread out a bit more, maybe dig a bit more than skin deep. But that is a quibble. No one is going to read this book to get enlightened about beauty. My second gripe will have to be a bit clouded. I don’t want to spoil anything. I found the particular fixation of the baddie on the specific group that is targeted curious. Why did this person focus on these targets? I did not get that there was a particular reason why the baddie was so set on this particular subset of victims. Perhaps the significance of this is in the eye of the beholder? But no matter, really.

The bottom line here is that you will be ripping through this book, dying (well, almost) to see how things turn out. Pretty Girls is an outstanding thriller, a very engaging, entertaining, and disturbing read, and that is a beautiful thing.

Review posted – 7/31/15

Publication date – 9/29/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

How serial killers choose their victims

The Advantages of Being Beautiful
8 Scientifically Proven Reasons Life Is Better If You’re Beautiful – by Dina Spector in Business Insider
—A Smithsonian article on
How Much is Being Attractive Worth
– by Abigail Tucker
10 Pleasures and Pains of Being Beautiful by Dr Jeremy Dean on PsyBlog

A lovely audio interview with the author by Steve White of Literary Week. The sound levels are off a bit, his volume being too loud relative to hers, but it’s worth putting up with.

==============================================SONGS

Offering a bit of further discomfort, after reading this book you might find some of these listens a bit disturbing

Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison and friends

Oh You Pretty Things – David Bowie

PYT (Pretty Young Thing) – Michael Jackson

You’re Beautiful – James Blunt

You are so Beautiful– Joe Cocker

And the all time best stalker theme song – Every Breath You Take – The Police

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The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson

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I’d taken enormous risks in the past two weeks, and I was lucky to have gotten away with them. But now I was done. It was over. I would live a quiet life and make sure that no one could hurt me again. I would continue to survive, knowing, as I’d known that night in the meadow, the stars pouring their light down on me, that I was special, that I was born with a different kind of morality. The morality of an animal—of a crow or a fox or an owl—and not of a normal human being.

Peter Swanson, author of The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, has a twisted mind, not that there’s anything wrong with that. He seems to think in curves, bends, dips and sudden, hairpin turns. The feeling is a bit akin to being here, or maybe here. The sudden changes in direction may generate a bit of screaming, but it’s all good.

It starts with a nod to, well, a bit more of a full body embrace of, Strangers on a Train, a 1950 psychological thriller by Patricia Highsmith, in which two men who meet while traveling get to sharing their troubles and decide that permanently eliminating each other’s problems might be the perfect solution. Hitchcock made a beautiful translation of the book to film in 1951. Swanson is a big fan of both Highsmith and Hitchcock.

I like the idea of sudden change. That you or me or anyone could go out to a bar one evening, and the random stranger who sits down beside you changes your life forever. It’s actually something that Hitchcock liked a lot himself. Most of his protagonists are accidental ones, just ordinary people who wind up in extraordinary circumstances.

In his version, Ted Severson a wealthy corporate raider (formerly a dot.com millionaire sort), at a Heathrow bar pre-flight, is approached by Lily, a lovely young thing. They strike up a conversation, and, as strangers might be better able to manage than people who actually know each other, (a theory titled The Rules of Airport Bars) they agree to tell each other the whole truth, and continue their truth-telling all the way back to Boston. The truth is gonna hurt…someone. Seems that Ted spotted his wife en flagrante with the contractor who was working with her on Ted’s Maine McMansion. Not good.

”How long ago was this?” asked my fellow traveler after I’d told her the story.
“Just over a week.”
She blinked her eyes, and bit at her lower lip. Her eyelids were pale as tissue paper.
“So what are you going to do about it?” she asked.
It was the question I’d been asking myself all week. “What I really want to do is kill her.” I smiled with my gin numbed mouth and attempted a little wink just to give her an opportunity to not believe me, but her face stayed serious. She lifted her reddish eyebrows.”
“I think you should.” She said.

And the game is afoot.

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Peter Swanson

An earlier title for this book was The Lonely Lives of Murderers, which, personally, I prefer. We are treated to multiple narrators, not all of whom are psycho-killers. These serve not only to bear witness to events from diverse perspectives, but to bring in the back story as well, offering a sliver of understanding about how at least one of the psycho killers might have become that way. This is a considerable stylistic switch from Swanson’s previous book, which was written in the third person. It is, however, entirely consistent with the madcap dashings-about of that earlier work. Detective Rebecca James carries over from The Girl With A Clock for a Heart, but that did not seem a significant connection between the two books.

One soft spot of note is that it can sometimes be easy to mistake the voice of one sociopath for another. There could have been more of a tonal difference made between Lily and Miranda’s narration. This is not literature, and makes no bones about it. Swanson considers himself a failed poet, and teases himself a bit in the book by giving Ted an urge to write bawdy limericks. It’s cute. But poetry major or not, he has proven, again, that he can write a wonderful, slick entertainment. No sophomore jinx here. If you are the sort who objects to excessive reliance on the sociopath as a crutch, you may have a point, but then you would probably not be reading this sort of book anyway. Peter Swanson has written a twizzler of a novel, a sweet morsel with surprising and satisfying twists that will, when you are finished, leave you wanting more. It is a gripping read, fun, fast, and furious. The Kind Worth Killing is most definitely a psycho logical thriller worth reading. You might pick this up at an airport or rail terminal or maybe take it along for a day at the beach. You will be glad you had. But while you are sitting at that bar, killing time in a waiting room, maybe lounging under a palm tree or an oceanfront umbrella, be careful who you talk to and what truths you tell.

Review posted – 4/10/15

Publication date – 2/3/2015

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Tumblr, Twitter and FB pages

Swanson’s web site has a cornucopia of samples of his Hitchcock poems, other poetry, short fiction and non-fiction, and is well worth checking out. Armchair Audience is Swanson’s site for writing on “Books read. Movies seen. TV Watched”

He writes 500 words a day, in the morning, then it is off to his paying gig, as a product manager for a non-profit. Hopefully The Kind Worth Killing will bring in enough scratch that he will have the luxury of writing full time. Early results are encouraging. Foreign book rights have been sold in eleven territories, and a film option has already been bought, by Nick Wechsler, producer of Magic Mike and The Road.

Free download of Strangers on a Train , the book

The film of Strangers on a Train can be seen here. The script was written by Czenzi Ormonde and some up-and-comer named Raymond Chandler, and if it is of interest, you can see the script here

I came across a couple of interviews you might like. Nicola Mira’s interview with Swanson for Thriller Book Journal was the source of Swanson’s comment about sudden change that I included in the review. Another is from the Dead Good site, which, while a Random House property, was not half-bad.. No specific interviewer is identified.

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Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

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Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.

Detective Bill Hodges is 62, overweight, divorced and retired. He lives alone and has an uncomfortably familiar relationship with his father’s pistol. The two spend long hours together in front of the tube, taking in the sort of Maury-Povich-mind-poison that is probably grown in basement vats to be sold to post-lobotomy viewers for the price of a gazillion commercials, disposable hours of a pointless life, and a willingness to cash in one’s remnant humanity for a permanent gig as a morality-blind multi-eyed sofa spud.

Hodges had been on the job when a particularly heinous crime had been committed, but was out before he could find the evil-doer. His pre-suicidal reverie is disturbed by the non-postal-service delivery of a printed message. The nut job who did the crime taunts Hodges for his failure, and encourages him to take his suicidal contemplation a step further. Fat chance.

As far as the term hard-boiled goes, I feel pretty comfortable applying it to eggs (cooked in water until the yolk is firm). As for hard-boiled fiction, there are probably as many different definitions as there are diverse sorts of egg-layers. So I will offer no litmus test here to measure whether Mr Mercedes satisfies a certain set of definitional criteria. Is it truly hard-boiled or not? Is it truly noir-ish or not? To which I can only reply. Sorry dear, did you say something? Could you pass the bourbon, please. There are many sub-categories of the mystery genre, 14 of which are noted for your pleasure on the web site of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And I am certain that Mr Mercedes fits nicely into one of them. But whether you prefer your mystery tales hard-boiled, soft-boiled, poached, scrambled, fried or over-easy, the one thing that counts here is the chef author. Whatever he does with and to the genre, Stephen King will take you for a ride that includes at least a bit and maybe more than a bit of a scare. And scary is scary whether the source is a haunted house, a psycho alien clown or a very sick puppy.

Said sick puppy opens this story by driving the large Mercedes of the title directly into a crowd of the hopeful and desperate at a job fair in an unnamed Midwest town, killing eight and seriously injuring over a dozen more. (King talks about the genesis of this scene here, in a video clip from TV station WABI in Maine.) Not a recreational activity most of us might indulge in, but for Brady Harstfield murdering and maiming constitutes good times. He makes ends meet as a house-calling IT guy. His second job is as an ice-cream vendor. And, while it is fun to see Brady in his white truck gig, it did feel rather forced. If you are expecting Raymond Chandler here, or Dashiell Hammett, you will have to holster your expectations. There will be no trying-to-figure-out-whodunit in this story. The looney tunes with the diminished conscience and enlarged mommy issues is presented straight away as our psycho-killer. So, more Columbo than Marlowe. The trail we follow is in how the goodies discover and find their way to the baddie.

Erstwhile Detective Hodges takes the lead. King spends some time with introductions, as Mr Mercedes is the first of a planned trilogy. So we get to know a bit about him and his partners in anti-crime. Jerome Robinson is 17, black, 6’5”, a computer whiz, within reason, and Ivy League bound. He has been doing some lawn work and occasional IT assistance for Hodges, and is the closest thing the old guy has to a friend. Holly Gibney, 44, has issues, having spent a few sessions in institutions for the very nervous. She is a cousin to the late owner of the Mercedes that was used in the carnage. Hodges met her as he looked into the death of her cuz. Her mother Charlotte is an awful human being, controlling, greedy, and incapable of seeing Holly’s better qualities. She has some, intelligence and tenacity being high on that list. This oddball trio (the Harper Road Irregulars?) work the case, without, of course, involving the police any more than absolutely necessary. I found them extremely engaging. Jerome is probably too perfect, and Holly may be a bit too twitchy, but they are fun to follow.

King shows his playfulness with the genre, whatever genre it actually is. Of course, Hodges is just a retired detective not a PI, but when Holly’s aunt, Janelle Patterson, (named, surely, for a certain author King has called “a terrible writer”) hires him he takes a step in the genre direction. (I have vowed not to make any jejune comments regarding private dicks) Janelle even buys him what she calls a Philip Marlowe fedora. Janelle is, of course, the mandatory femme fatale, but if so, she is on the light side, lacking some of the attributes normally associated with that type. Could Hodges’ Harper Road address be a nod to Ross McDonald’s Lew Harper? The baddie references several cop dramas, NYPD Blue, Homicide, and The Wire, for example. Luther and Prime Suspect are noted as well, in a disparaging way. Mentions of Wambaugh and Grisham appear, and King double dips by naming a records department cop Marlo. There are undoubtedly many more, but those are the ones that jumped out at me.

King lets us look over Brady’s shoulder as well as over Hodges’, and tosses in some third-party views as well. Parenthood comes in for a difficult time. Only Jerome, of all the major, or even secondary characters, has a decent parent-child relationship with his actual family. Of course bubby family life is not exactly a staple of detective fiction, so that fits well enough.

Madness is the doorway that writers step through when they want to introduce a bit of fantasy to an otherwise real-world scenario. And SK simply could not help himself. Mr Mercedes is most definitely a non-fantasy novel, but there are a few (really, only a few) moments when familiar King woo-woo material appears. It will be interesting to see if this is a recurring feature in his trilogy or if SK can stay on the non-fantasy wagon for the entire ride.

So what’s the bottom line here? Stephen King cranks out novels, it seems, like Hershey produces kisses. They are all tasty and appealing, but there is a definite sameness to the product. King can draw readers in. He offers engaging characters, and understands the mechanics of tension and release as well as any living writer. Put a red wrapper on it and it remains a tasty treat. Blue? Same deal. I bet if King wanted to write a historical romance it would have engaging characters, some danger, some resolution. It would pull you in and hold on like a succubus (no, not public transportation through a red-light district) or like a succubus on a private dick. Sorry, I just could not stop myself. But at least I put the offending material under a spoiler tag, so that makes it ok, right? or, in this case, a femme fatale. I thought the anti-religion musing in which the killer indulges seemed like an interesting theme to explore further, but it seemed to fade.

You will rip through Mr Mercedes faster than the posted limit. There are some scary moments as you careen through, and you will care whether this one or that one comes to a bad end. Some do, some don’t. It is probably a good thing that King is looking to write things other than straight-up horror. He has to amuse himself somehow, keep those possessed typing fingers of his out of trouble. But overall, while Mr Mercedes will get you from here to there and show you a thing or two along the way, it felt a lot more like basic transportation than a true luxury ride.

Posted – 1/3/15

Published June 3, 2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Here is SK’s site and FB page

Otto Penzler has nifty description of what constitutes hard-boiled fiction

A few other King Family items I have reviewed
by Stephen King
The Shining
Doctor Sleep
Under the Dome
Duma Key
Lisey’s Story
Revival

by Joe Hill
NOS4A2
20th Century Ghosts
Heart-Shaped Box

A Gif of the UK cover is cute, but I thought it too distracting to include above

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