THE situation in this and every other country on Earth seems dire. We continue to struggle forwards through potholes, load-shedding and water scarcity, through inflation, unemployment and the crazy mess that is our government. We've more or less depleted the planet. Payday has arrived. The chickens came home to roost. I read once, I think it was in a book by Iris Murdoch, that everyone's lives are just barely out of control.
What does someone do when they're looking for order? I reach for crime fiction, and the darker the better. You know there's going to be a logical denouement and that law and justice will prevail, as they so often fail to do in real life.
I've spent the last week by the sea reading two pitch-dark crime novels that made me forget about everything that is amiss.
Coben strikes again
If you want to chew your nails, hyperventilate and sacrifice sleep, open Harlan Coben's latest book, I Will Find You. I agree with Lee Child (on the back) and Kerneels Breytenbach: Coben never, ever lets you down. The plot is a suburban nightmare: my favorite scenario for suspense literature.
David and Cheryl Burroughs' life is picture-perfect with a cute house in the suburb and a cuter three-year-old boy, Matthew. Then, in a wink, everything changes, as it does in crime fiction.
David, a sleepwalker from an early age, wakes up one night covered in blood. Not his own, but his son's. The child was gruesomely murdered in his cot. David is convicted and ends up in prison. He offers no resistance and does not defend himself because he is morbidly depressed. His wife stops visiting and divorces him. He has nothing left to live for.
Then, one day in the fifth year of his sentence, his wife's sister — with whom he always had a good relationship — visits and shows him a photograph taken at an amusement park. In the background is an eight-year-old boy: his son, Matthew, who was allegedly killed at three. By him.
David is encouraged to choose life and, as the title suggests, locate his son. He escapes from prison. Now he's a fugitive and needs to find out what really happened that bloody night. He must redeem himself and save his son.
The tension is almost unbearable throughout. The protagonist has so many odds stacked against him and is so wrong-footed that the reader becomes emotionally invested in him. He has only one goal and nothing is going to deter him.
The villains are complex, connected, privileged, and corrupt to the marrow. It's a race against time and the reader turns the pages ever faster.
Coben has a way of making you care about his characters. That's why he's one of my favourite crime writers. Read the book, preferably over a weekend so you can devour it without interruptions.
Another true North
The name Alex North is enough to create tension and cause heart rates to accelerate. If you've read The Whisper Man and The Shadow Friend, you'll know what I'm talking about. He creates an atmosphere of sinister animosity, of brooding evil waiting to erupt. And his latest, The Half Burnt House, does not disappoint.
His storylines are intertwined and it takes a while to connect the dots. The reader is confronted with a diverse cast of characters who, on the face of it, have little to do with each other; but of course there are always only a few degrees of separation.
Katie Shaw has always felt her parents loved her younger brother Chris more than her. He's a special kid: sensitive, withdrawn — the kind who gets bullied. She always looks out for him. But one day she chooses to go home with her boyfriend and let Chris walk home alone from school. Of course, the consequences are catastrophic: her brother is seemingly senselessly assaulted and repeatedly stabbed.
From there, his life comes off the rails. In the present, he is a drug addict and homeless, and Katie has little contact with him. Then the ghosts of the past rear their heads and she goes looking for him. He is suspected of murdering a wealthy man in a half burnt-out mansion. He is on the run.
Katie needs to make sense of what happened. It doesn't help that her husband (her childhood sweetheart) perceives her as paranoid and doesn't really support her.
Who is the wealthy recluse, a philosophy professor, who was murdered, and what was Chris' relationship with him? Why did Katie's father collect newspaper clippings about a notorious serial killer from decades ago, the so-called Angel Maker?
The story moves between the present and past as the picture unfolds. It is, like Coben's book, almost unbearably tense. Katie and her little girl come into the (contemporary) serial killer's sights and another race against time ensues.
North has a way of inspiring fear and breaking your heart. The fragility of the human psyche is explored, and philosophical questions are raised about chance and predestination. His use of language is poetic; not exactly something one expects in crime fiction.
What, where and how much?
I Will Find You by Harlan Coben was published by Century and costs R284 at Graffiti.
The Half Burnt House by Alex North was published by Penguin Random House and costs R340 at Graffiti.
What are we listening to?
Clannad: “I will find you":
♦ VWB ♦
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