The Killing Lessons by Saul Black

This may come as a bit of a surprise to the people who have read my last few reviews, but I actually LIKED this book.

I’ve been on a run of books that while ok, I’ve picked holes in. Take Underground for example. When I read that, it was ok, nothing special, but it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever read either. However, by the time it came to writing the review, I wrote quite a bad review of it.

Maybe I’m still getting over A Little Life (the best book in the world ever, go and read it. Whatever you’re reading, stop right now and go and read that. Except this review – carry on reading this review).

Or perhaps I’ve been picking books where the premise showed promise (must remember to use the phrase ‘premise promise’ at some point in the future), but ultimately disappointed. That was certainly the case with Underground.

 

Maybe the books are just shit, and it takes me stopping and thinking about it while I write the review to actually realise it.

Let’s find out.

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black begins with a double killing at a family home in a small, peaceful town. Rowena and her son are killed by two men, but her ten-year old daughter escapes.

The premise promise (tick) from the dust jacket is as follows:

“Her escape is now the key to the killings – and how to stop them. Injured, half frozen, terrified, Nell has only one place to go. A place that could be even more terrifying than what she’s running from.”

Except it’s not. Nell’s story gets parked for much of the story, and the place that she ends up, COULD be terrifying if we approached it from her point of view, but we actually see things from the point of view of a kindly old man who tends to her.

That’s not the fault of the book, though, that’s the fault of lazy marketing. “Let’s tell them a ten year old girl is in danger, that’ll reel ‘em in.”

 

The ACTUAL premise is a homicide detective, Valerie Hart investigating a series of grisly murders that appear to initially have no connection. At the same time, she must face up to a returning ex-lover and an investigation by the FBI

What I liked most about The Killing Lessons was that there was no convoluted attempt to mask the bad guys or add a twist at the end. The killers were there from the beginning, even getting their own POV chapters. This was a simple, old-fashioned good vs evil thriller and because of that it worked.

Valerie Hart was a sympathetic enough character to illicit some empathy from the reader, and yet flawed enough to make her an interesting character to have leading you through the plot. A good enough character that surely a series of crime thrillers won’t be far behind her.

Is there anything more to say about this book, he asked, stalling for time as he tried to think of a way to end the blog… It was a little gross and graphic in parts, but for some people that’s the appeal of these books.

I enjoyed it – and the important thing is after having written my review, I still liked it. Liked it enough to read a second book featuring the lead character.

So, for the first time since A Little Life – I’m giving a book the Alex Stamp of Approval. Go out and read, please.

Underground by SL Grey

Murder mysteries are tricky things to write. I know this because the book I spent eight years writing that isn’t quite good enough to be published (not bitter) is a murder mystery.

The hardest thing about them, especially in a contemporary setting, is keeping all the characters in one place while you tell the story. If you’ve just murdered someone, the sensible thing would be to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible, not wait around to be interrogated by an amateur sleuth.

That’s why most murder mysteries – and the hugely successful Midsomer Murders – tend to take place in villages. There’s an unconscious understanding that most people who live in villages are usually reluctant to leave the boundaries.

(Before any village folk come at me wielding pitchforks, I’m aware that I’m making a massive generalisation – but it’s true. The smaller the bubble, the more likely the audience is going to buy that the murderer hasn’t scarpered.)

When Agatha Christie did it, she locked a bunch of strangers on a train. When I did it, I locked a family in a remote mansion during a storm at Christmas (there was no way they were getting out of that house).

S L Grey – actually the combination of two writers – does it by bunging a bunch of strangers in a missile silo.

The idea is they’re a group of paranoid Americans who have paid for a room in the silo to wait out the end of the world – when a (generic) virus breaks out in Asia, they all head to the silo.

Once they’re all down there, there’s a death, obviously – and many arguments about who it might have been. Then there are more deaths, before near-on hysteria just before…

Well, I shan’t ruin it for anyone who does want to read it, but… this book is not what I was expecting at all. Because it was based in a silo, and with the virus happening outside, I thought we’d get something like Hugh Howey’s Wool – a more dystopian feel to the whole thing.

What we get, however is a silo that may as well be an apartment complex with a locked door and a virus that is dismissed fairly early on. The focus of the book is on the characters and the mystery. Which would be fine, except none of the characters are particularly likeable or intriguing, and the ones that are, are sidelined for the noisy rednecks.

Which leaves us with the mystery – I did keep reading on to find out what was happening, so the book succeeded in that respect, however the actual resolution is not very well executed. The answer to who/what caused the initial death is pretty much a cop-out and the reader finds out in what amounts to a footnote.

Plus, the end turns things on their head so that two of the survivors who are about the only ones you’re rooting for, actually turn out to be just as bad as all the others.

The only real mystery left unresolved is how it took TWO people to write this book.

(And yes, I did put myself on a par with Agatha Christie – I’m a literary genius. Deal with it.)