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The Late Review: The Killing Lessons

30th Nov, 2022

Author: Peter Tennant

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Writer Glen Duncan has had a varied career. Initially he wrote books that were marketed as literary, but often with genre elements (and I reviewed a couple of those for The Third Alternative). In 2011 he went full on horror with the first volume in The Last Werewolf trilogy, full of people who are hairy on the inside and even vampires. Which brings us to 2015 and The Killing Lessons (Orion Books tpb), published under the pseudonym Saul Black and announced as Book One in the Valerie Hart series of three.

San Francisco homicide detective Valerie is in charge of the hunt for two serial killers who torture and murder young women, then leave their bodies with random objects planted in the orifices. It feels like a hopeless task, and Valerie has problems of her own - a fondness for alcohol, poor sleep, blackouts, an FBI agent with a personal vendetta, and now her former lover Nick, who Valerie did the dirty on, is back in town and sending her hormones racing.

Lessons is a book of short chapters, with several different characters acting as the viewpoint, including the killers. In the opening section Xander and Paulie are executing a home invasion. With her mother and brother dead, young Nell escapes into the forest and becomes trapped in an isolated cabin with the writer Angelo, both of whom get a turn with the mike. Another viewpoint character is waitress Claudia, who is taken by the killers and held prisoner, facing torture and sexual assault, before death. It's up to Valerie to crack the case and pull whoever she can from the wreckage.

This is a fast paced book with a plot that twists and turns (at times, as with Valerie's journey into the killer's lair, it reminded me of Silence of the Lambs) and some truly horrific events taking place, so that you never really feel certain that anyone will get out alive, except of course for Valerie (the whole trilogy thing is a big clue), and have a sense of foreboding regarding what will happen next. While the base story is simple enough, Black includes plenty of variations on a theme and plot detours that only add to the complexity and depth of the work - the history between Valerie and Nick, the reasons for Carla's hatred of Valerie, Claudia's fight to survive, the fluctuating relationship between Xander and Paulie, Angelo's health problems that stop him caring for Nell as he should. It all adds up to a serious piece of work, with police procedure captured perfectly, each step in the investigation leading to the next, with no need for coincidence or lucky breaks, something I find a source of irritation in other books with a similar pedigree. Black's phrasing is pitch perfect, capturing each character's voice and giving a wealth of descriptive writing that only enriches the reading experience.

Best of all is the characterisation, the way in which Black brings his people to life on the page, both good and bad. Valerie is driven, desperate to catch the killer, even though the hunt is impacting both her health and hopes of happiness. She has a self-destructive streak, one that makes her take risks others would shy away from, and in a way this is what makes her so successful as a detective. Nick is the man who loves her in spite of everything, not least the mistakes she made in the past, and wants to set things right between them, even though others are throwing spanners in the works. Nell is a young girl trying to make sense of the world and the terrible thing that has happened to her family. Angelo is an award winning writer, but burnt out by life, both health issues and the death of his beloved wife; it's never stated but you sense that he has come to the cabin in the woods to die, and Nell's appearance gives him a new reason to live. Claudia is a young woman with perhaps a too high opinion of her own worth, but she rises to the challenge, surprising herself with what she is capable of when her life is at stake.

And then there are the killers. Paulie is the hanger on, riding on Xander's blood soaked shirt tails, accepting the crumbs that he throws, both idolising his mentor and resenting him, feeling that he doesn't get the respect that he deserves, but at the same time scared of what Xander is capable of. Finally we have Xander, who is a fully drawn monster, one shaped in early childhood, the product of abuse, with the objects that he leaves in his victims' orifices given a terrible and ritualistic significance. In his way he is just as driven as Valerie, somebody who believes in the sanctity of his mission, of what he is trying to accomplish, but at the same time relishes the cruelty involved. He talks to himself, is continually confused about what he should do and at the same time unhealthily certain of the direction he should go, finding signs that reassure him when he is on the right track. I'm not a psychologist so can't say how accurate this depiction of a psychopath is, but it feels true; it feels real.

The Killing Lessons is a multi-faceted serial killer thriller, one with a richness and depth that is only hinted at in most such works. Thoroughly recommended.




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