Tag Archives: psycho

The Day of the Dead: Nicci French

The Day of the Dead is an ominous title for the final book in the Frieda Klein series from husband-and-wife writing team “Nicci French” (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French). For those playing catch-up, this is the eighth book in the series which follows London psychologist Frieda Klein. I’ll add here that in spite of the fact that this book includes many repeat characters, it can be read as a standalone, but if you want to get a bit more out of the story, I’d recommend that you read at least the first one in the series: Blue Monday.

the day of the dead

The Day of the Dead begins with a horrific incident in London which leaves many people wounded, but as the police begin to investigate what seems like an accident, the incident turns into something much more sinister. This murder case initially baffles police, but then another body surfaces, and another, and another…..

Meanwhile, Frieda Klein (who doesn’t appear until we’re really deep into the plot) is in hiding. In Blue Monday, she met serial killer, psychopath Dean Reeve, and although he was supposedly dead at the end of the book, Frieda has insisted to the police for years that Dean was still alive. And considering how her life has been turned into a theatre of blood and murder since meeting Dean, she may be onto something.

Dean Reeve is the ultimate predator, and over the course the series he’s played a cat-and-mouse game with Frieda, always close by, always circling. To some, Frieda’s claims about Dean Reeve are too fantastic to be believed, and she is regarded as an attention seeking nut, a woman “who has left a trail of havoc behind her,” but Frieda also has her defenders.

In The Day of the Dead, the police finally have to acknowledge that Dean Reeve is alive, and into his current string of showy murders stumbles a young confused criminology student named Lola who has become so interested in Frieda that she decides to write a dissertation “deconstructing” the psychologist. Lola seeks Frieda and manages to find her, but with Dean Reeve circling, Lola doesn’t want to leave Frieda’s side. Frieda is in hiding for a reason as she knows that those close to her are in danger from Dean. Frieda knows that Dean “is reaching the end. One way or another.” 

Although this book clocks in at just over 400 pages, it was a very quick, addictive read. The novel’s strongest point, IMO, is that Frieda, having dealt with Dean Reeve, never underestimates him. Psychopaths are underestimated by novices who cannot even begin to imagine how someone like Dean thinks. Most of us are lucky enough to live our lives without ever crossing the path of a psychopath, but if you’re unfortunate enough to ever tangle with a sicko and survive, you move forward into an unsettling life. The authors nailed this feeling.  As the novel builds to its inevitable crescendo, the pacing is excellent. While Frieda seems to have reached a zen-like plateau in her acceptance of this, her final duel with Dean, the character of limpet-like Lola is rather annoying. The authors pulled a bit of a switcheroo with the plot, and I might have been a bit annoyed about it had I not already guessed it. Still, if you are in the mood for a a crime novel that sucks you and and refuses to let go, then The Day of the Dead may fit the bill.

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The Catherine Wheel: Elizabeth Harrower

In Elizabeth Harrower’s novel, The Catherine Wheel, it’s the 1950s, and twenty-five-year-old Clemency James is an Australian lodger living in a grim London boarding house belonging to spiritualist landlady, Miss Evans. Clem’s tiny, bleak attic room has “a diagonal view of bare black avenues and paths and empty seats and grass,” but in spite of the room’s lack of appeal, to Clem, the space represents her “square yards of freedom.” That freedom is about to be swept away when a peculiar couple insinuate themselves into Clem’s life.

Clemency earns a marginal living teaching French to private students while she studies, by correspondence, to be a lawyer. With her father dead, her stepmother, Mimi, back in Australia, and a small legacy to help her survive, Clemency doesn’t have much time for frivolity–in fact she’s on a treadmill alternating between teaching and studying. There’s little to no fun in between, and so perhaps that makes her vulnerable.

The Catherine wheelChristian Roland,  a very good-looking young man, is first introduced to Clem as the new window cleaner, and soon he and Olive, a much older woman he calls his wife, are well established features in the building. Before long, Christian, by using a suave combination of guilt and pressure, manipulates Clem into giving him free French lessons. At first Clem, who already resents teaching and “the draining off of that much energy–but [I] needed the money,” resists and while there are hints that she could give free lessons, Clem initially responds negatively:

And where was the obligation to be heart and soul with everyone who importuned attention? And, really, was graciousness my aim in life?

Christian and Olive make a strange couple. He’s a former actor, strikingly good-looking, with a history of finding a series of women to ‘take care of him’ whereas Olive is much a much older, plain, “large round shouldered woman” who initially treats Clem with embarrassing and unnecessary obsequiousness. There are moments when Clem receives warning signals about Christian and yet these moments fade and then vanish as she’s swept up by his relentless pursuit and charismatic personality. Gradually, Clem is seduced, mesmerized, manipulated, and beguiled into Christian’s chaotic world of poverty, debts, endless menial jobs, drunken binges, and violent arguments. And as Christian slowly dismantles Clem’s defenses, Olive becomes violently jealous of Christian’s relationship with Clem–or so he claims. Yet since Christian loves being in the position of having women fighting for him, and since he is constantly acting a role with himself as the star, it’s impossible to tell just where the truth ends and the lies begin.

Christian, who has a massive chip on his shoulder about class, money and the standard of living he thinks he’s entitled to, is out for what he can get from Clem. There’s the sense that his goal is to overcome Clem’s reservations about his character with conquest as pure ego gratification. Occasionally Clem wavers between fascination and revulsion yet gradually melts under the constant assault of his dominant, narcissistic personality:

I felt myself withdraw, withdraw mentally, from his proximity, I didn’t like him! All at once his earnest pleasure in himself was alarming.

‘Then after they’ve asked me to do their income-tax returns–one actually did the other day–they tell me how poor they are. They get out the old purse and try to kid me along. Can’t afford! They can’t bend their fingers for diamonds some of these old bags!’

As a student of the theatre, I saluted him. As a student of human nature I felt an unprecedented inclination to come down heavily on both sides at once. He was awful! Why did it seem irrelevant?

As Clem becomes increasingly entangled in the lives of Christian and Olive, she isn’t always honest with herself. She’s not honest about her motives for ‘helping’ Christian, and as she sinks deeper and deeper into his delusional, volatile, narcissistic web, her friends become alarmed only to find that they are powerless to help her. Clem sees Christian, with “his bitter, private, despairing intensity,” as noble and someone who deserves a chance. Everyone else sees Christian for exactly what he is–trouble, a user and destroyer of any woman foolish enough to get involved with him. Christian lives in a world in which he manufactures his own reality as evidenced by his scheme to learn French and move to Paris. Given his volatility and sordid past, it’s a ludicrous idea, yet as the novel wears on, and Clem is seduced into Christian’s delusional world, she begins to accept that his fantasies of a glorious future are entirely reasonable and deserved. Trying to talk sense to Clem about Christian is rather like trying to persuade the ardent heroin addict to pass on the syringe already stuck in an arm.

This was no place for me, yet I was held to the room–far from fascinated now and the reverse of curious–by something I did not believe in: necessity, compulsion.

Elizabeth Harrower only gives us a few slices of information about Clem’s past, but there are darker hints of some emotional trouble in her past.

Then, all my life I had been ill of emotion, had been much gobbled, prodded. […] To be left alone, I wanted! Not to have people or things, not to be had by them. My very survival, it seemed, had hinged in the absence of feeling in my life. How pure was freedom and isolation!

Does this explain why Clem enjoys a safe platonic friendship with Lewis? He’s already spoken for, and yet he too is in a safely impossible relationship with a married woman.

While Harrower builds a convincing case of how a normal, hard-working, sensible woman can be gradually taken over by a dominant, psychotic personality, at the same time, Clem is a frustrating character–a woman I wanted to shake out of her stupor and passivity. She imagines, at least initially, that she’s an objective, interested observer speculating about Christian’s life and his strange relationship with Olive. Her best friends, Lewis and his sister Helen, can see what a destructive influence Christian is on Clem, but they are powerless (as we are) to stop her descent. There are several scenes when Christian plays both Olive and Clem as if he’s written the script for some tawdry domestic melodrama–scenes in which Clem realizes just how she’s being played.  I wanted Clem to knee him and shove them both out the door….

Emma recently made a comment regarding a novel needing to say something new, and I thought about that as I read The Catherine Wheel. This is the story of an obsessive, destructive  relationship, and how many books have we read on that subject? Yet here Elizabeth Harrower achieves something quite different. She very convincingly shows us a main female character who appears to be very calm, steady and sensible, who is gradually beguiled by a disturbed, charismatic young man, and slowly, gradually, she’s seduced by his dominant personality. His world of chaos, explosive passions, violent jealousy, and financial fecklessness becomes her reality. If you’ve ever had a front row seat to this sort of takeover of one personality by another, then you’ll know that Harrower is a keen observer of human nature.

In Certain Circles, through a handful of characters, Harrower tells the story of marital dominance, and we see how things such as invalidism, neuroticism, or bitterness can effectively erode the personality, confidence and willpower of the less-dominant spouse. The Watch Tower also deals with domestic tyranny, and how abusers create false worlds and then imprison their victims within invisible destructive marital restraints. The Catherine Wheel’s Clem and Christian are not married, but nonetheless, the theme here is dominance and the gradual stripping of power and independence of the underdog in the relationship. While there’s a range of psychotics, bullies and neurotics in these three novels, married or not, Harrower seems to argue that there’s a struggle for power in any relationship, with the more neurotic or psychotic partner gradually eroding the willpower and independence of the other.

Review copy/own a copy.

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Consequences by Philippe Djian

“Evil’s out of hand in this country.”

Earlier this year, Emma pointed me in the direction of Philippe Djian’s novel, Consequences. It’s a great title as the main character, Marc, a middle-aged professor whose failed literary career has led him to teach creative writing, has reached his 50s in a life full of bad choices that is still, miraculously, consequence-free. But this is all about to change, and it changes rapidly within the first few pages. After an evening of drinking, Marc drives one of his young students back to his “lair” for “one full night of fun.” The next day, the girl, whose name he can’t remember, is dead. Marc doesn’t hesitate; he disposes of her body in a deep crevice on a hillside in the nearby woods.

consequencesStrange reaction … but then everything about Marc is a little strange. Not that the casual observer would necessarily pick up the warning signs right away. After all, Marc is a professor, middle-aged, and lives with his sister, Marianne. The fact that he lives with his sister is a little worrying, and then again they are awfully close. On the surface, Marc seems a ‘normal’ libidinous middle-aged professor who compensates for life’s disappointments by engaging in meaningless sexual encounters with students.

Quite a few years ago, he’d understood that the time had come to take advantage of certain perks that came with his profession–for lack of the better rewards that he had to stop expecting. One day, by a kind of miracle, one of his students began to glow as he looked at her–from the inside out, like a Chinese lantern with a wonderful gleam–but was, despite this, insipid and ordinary, almost devoid of interest, and absolutely incapable of putting two sentences together. Yet, just as he was brutally jeering, in front of other students, at work she’d turned in, he was blinded by a blast of heat. And this girl turned out to be the first in a fairly long series, as well as one of the most satisfying lays he’d ever had.

Richard Oslo, the department head, a real cretin in Marc’s opinion, isn’t the least attractive to women, so Marc congratulates himself that he may not have gained the directorship, but at least he can seduce any woman he wants. To Marc, this “reestablishes the balance.” Marc congratulates himself on a narrow escape from some messy consequences with the dead girl and starts lining up his next affair with a student who “was making use of lower and lower necklines as the year advanced.” There’s no shortage of eager young female students, it seems, but all of Marc’s erotic machinations fly out the window when he meets Myriam, the gorgeous red-headed step-mother of the missing girl. Marc, who normally steers clear of mothers, has never had sex with a woman older than 26. He’s powerfully attracted to Myriam, and since her husband is somewhere in Afghanistan, she’s alone.  Marc is warned to stay away from Myriam by Richard Olso, who sees a PR nightmare ahead, but Marc is already hooked into the chase:

Certainly a department head had a more comfortable salary, and the power that came along with it, especially in these uncertain times, had to be very enjoyable. Yet attracting women, turning the heads of widows, students, housewives, and holding on to that gift, appealing to these fucking women before you even opened your mouth, without putting the slightest effort into it–well, he said to himself, now that was something that gave pause for thought.

He wouldn’t have traded places with Richard, There was no sense thinking about it for hours. Ten or so years ago, his life had changed. It made a 180-degree turn the day he realized how something that seemed so complicated was really so easy. Things took on a different cast. And what a relief that had been! What a profound rebirth, in fact.

From there to thinking he wasn’t against extending his hunting grounds to mothers, to the parents of students and the like, was a step he took easily.

One very clever device utilized by Djian is the collision of consequences. Initially Marc, who ironically is teaching a course of “John Gardner and moral literature,” escapes all the consequences of his actions–his casual affairs, and the way he treats his female students. As the days pass, the author gradually reveals glimpses of Marc and Marianne’s childhood, so that we see how these middle-aged siblings live, daily, with the consequences of their childhood. Memories of the past and actions of the present are interwoven until the consequences of both collide.

At 195 pages, this is a slim, deeply unsettling novel, and one that is very easy to underestimate. Initially when Marc doesn’t question why the girl died and he decides, casually, to toss her body into the crevice, the plot seems implausible or at least sketchy. As the book unfolds, events as they are explained or presented to us by Marc become increasingly questionable. I’m used to an unreliable narrator in the first person. Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and Michael Dibdin’s Dirty Tricks are both superb example of just how far authors can go (and have fun) with narratives told by unreliable narrators. Philippe Djian takes the riskier road less travelled and for this novel, using the third person, he tells the story through Marc’s eyes.  It’s all so very cleverly done, and yet because this is a third person narration, Djian initially risks alienating the reader with a story that appears to have implausible actions committed by the main character. All the red flags would have popped up sooner with a first person narration, but the third person narrative places an additional murkiness to events in this dark tale of crime, twisted relationships, and the inability to escape the consequences of one’s actions and experiences. The cover, reflecting the narrative in multiple ways, is a perfect choice for the novel. 

Translated by Bruce Benderson.

This is the second Djian novel I’ve read, and I’d rate Consequences above Unforgivable. So thanks Emma for another great recommendation.

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Get Me Out of Here by Henry Sutton

“Maybe I wasn’t ready for calm, to lose myself in some quiet outpost in, say, South America. I still had ambition. And I didn’t think I was sleazy enough, or certainly ready enough to explore my baser self, like so many Western males before me, in South East Asia. I was going to forget Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia. For now. I was feeling strangely robust, both physically and mentally. Despite recent events, or perhaps because of certain incidents–all the tragedy and the suffering, precipitated, I could see it so clearly, by the failure of the infrastructure and monetary regulations, of society, of civilisation–I was feeling, in a way, immortal.”

Over a decade ago, I was standing in a shop listening to a middle-aged woman complaining about some food she’d bought for her cat. It was, she said, too hard, and she wanted a refund. The shop assistant tried to explain politely that dry cat food is, by its nature hard, small granules, and that the bag was empty except for a handful of pieces. Bored and more than a bit impatient, I realised that I was witnessing a scam. We’ve seen this sort of scenario repeatedly, but there was something different this time. The woman suddenly sprinkled the crumbs of the bag along the counter, and pulling out a claw hammer, she proceeded to pound the cat food into the counter to ‘demonstrate’ its texture.

Step away from the looney….

That memory came back loud and clear when I began reading Henry Sutton’s brilliantly wicked and nastily funny novel Get Me Out of Here, and we are first introduced to Matt Freeman, a thirty-something Londoner. The novel’s initial pages depict brand-obsessed Matt making a nuisance of himself as he tries to get a refund for a pair of glasses he no longer wants, and as it turns out, he’s damaged on purpose after spotting another pair he prefers in another shop:

These were by Lindberg too, but they were a titanium and plastic, or rather acetate mix, from a line they didn’t seem to stock in David Clulow, and much more like my trendy Oliver Peoples pair. They look fat and stylish enough, but appeared to have the practical and comfort factors I craved also. I could travel with these and play tennis with them, and go to meetings and for drinks and openings and dinners and parties. I could probably fuck in them. In short I felt I could happily live with them and very quickly I couldn’t get them out of my head and became more and more convinced that they were exactly what I wanted, and not the Lindberg rimless pair I’d already and rather rashly purchased, from a high-street chain in a mall too, which was why, when I was fiddling with them this morning, I possibly bent an arm back with more force than was strictly necessary. Though the lens did snap very easily. It could have happened when I was away, or at a meeting, or playing tennis. Who knows when and at what inconvenience.

The scene in the shop sets the stage for what’s to come in this explosively funny book. Matt is obsessive-compulsive and a pathological liar–a big talker with endless business plans and elaborate business trips that never go beyond the luggage purchasing stage.  He acknowledges that he’s “always drawn to deprivation, corruption, instability,”  and plans to move to North Korea based on the logic that there are “no fatties there.”  As we see him careen through both the shopping experiences and the relationships in his life, we realise that he’s a petulant, demanding, endless consumer  and a self-focused, shit boyfriend. But this is just the tip of a very nasty iceberg. Author Sutton subtly seeds information about Matt’s life, past and present, through casual references, and with Matt in charge of the unreliable narrative, we pick up the clues which add up to an alarming, violent reality. Why are the women in Matt’s life disappearing? Why does Matt feel the sudden need to paint his flat and just what is that dark substance under his finger nails?

Matt’s twisted logic is coloured by the fact he thinks he’s more intelligent than anyone else and that he’s unappreciated. In a way, both of those things are strangely true. He’s a sly and cunning predator who harps on about “what was wrong with humanity”  and bemoans  “the infringement of personal space” even as he stalks women with a preference for the  “demure” female who has an air of unattainability. No wonder he only has one friend, Roger whose main interest in Matt is the swinging, lurid sex life that Matt imaginatively details just to feed Roger’s envy.

Another major figure in Matt’s life is his brother Sean, a successful sculptor who lives in Norway. Matt loathes Sean and is nauseated by his success and his happy family life. But as Matt faces a continuing  “problem with liquidity” and ever dwindling possessions, Sean must be cultivated as a potential source for “investments.” Here’s Matt ranting about Sean and the boring wholesomeness of Norway:

There was a whiff of fascism about it all–the forced, mass jollity, dictated by my crazy brother. He’d have given Kim Jong-il a run for his money. And what exactly did Sean’s acceptance, his popularity, his authority in Norway say about that particularly strange little country? As far as I could tell it was an absurdly childish nation of non-dissenting Boy Scouts, and the odd busty Girl Guide. No one, it seemed, had ever fully matured. Everyone, by and large, still ran around in shorts with penknives holstered to their belts, getting ready to bed down for the night in creaky wooden huts, painted an unpleasant, ubiquitous scarlet.

In one of the best scenes in the book, he deliberately trashes suitcases after a rash purchase and then returns them:

So I thought I’d put the bag through its paces and test the strength of the handle and the play on the wheels and what would happen to the grey if it were subjected to a bit of tossing around in the yard. After all, this was probably mild compared to what the baggage handlers at Heathrow, or Pyongyang International for that matter, would subject the thing to–except they wouldn’t of course, be getting their hands on it, as it was only ever meant to be hand luggage. However, the hopelessly young sales assistant in Selfridges’ luggage department–what was his ambition in life? to front a boy band?–didn’t necessarily know that. If I’d had a gun I’d have shot the damn thing to see what it was really made of.

Get Me Out of Here is insanely entertaining and a compelling read. Just think of a demented, psychotic version of John Self (Money by Martin Amis) and you’ll just about have the feel of this book. Sutton crafts the narrative in such a way that Matt’s hyper-critical, twisted thoughts and sick rationalisations (and he tends to shape the stories he tells to suit the mood), are appallingly hilarious. The reader becomes Matt’s confidante as his slide into madness continues, and the various women Matt knows or spies on keep disappearing.  As Matt’s  life slips farther and farther out of control, he becomes increasingly dishevelled, racking up more and more ludicrous versions of events which he occasionally unloads with veiled aggression to anyone who represents ‘authority’ (the police, the television licensing men). Sutton doesn’t let up for a moment as he delves into the dark depths of this character, and there’s not a weak page or weak paragraph in this non-stop roller coaster ride of murder, mayhem and endless shopping.

This book is destined to be one of my Reads of the Year.

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