Lovemurder - Saul Black ****
The predictability and familiarity of the serial killer plot of Saul Black's second Valerie Hart thriller is both its weakness and its strength. Its weakness is that it's very much a of cat-and-mouse thriller in the Manhunter or Silence of the Lambs mode, where an uneasy relationship and even grudging respect builds up between the detective and the killer. It's a dangerous relationship to form as it can be one that gets into your head, and there are some images and thoughts one doesn't want put there. The strength of this familiar scenario is that not only is it still thrilling, but it gives the author enough the opportunity to delve into some very uncomfortable places to explore deeper questions about human behaviour, and Black proves to be very capable indeed.
Six years prior to the events of the current situation in Lovemurder Valerie Hart was involved in the case of two particularly twisted killers who sexually humiliated, tortured and abused six female victims before killing them, documenting the whole disturbing process on camera. The extraordinarily beautiful Katherine Glass is currently in a high security prison for her part in the crimes waiting on a death sentence, but the Man in the Mask who was her accomplice was never captured or identified. Six years later he's restarted his activities with the same callous methods, but this time he's sending messages to Valerie Hart and her team to see if they can catch him before he kills his next victim.
Procedurally, Lovemurder runs along familiar lines that in another writer's hands would be almost laughable. Why is the killer behaving like a Batman villain and leaving clues and riddles? Why are they personally addressed to Valerie Hart? Why does this not ring any alarm bells other than the obvious one that he is about to kill someone? And why is Katherine Glass the only one capable of deciphering these messages? Is Valerie Hart being played? How come the reader is able to recognise this long before one of San Francisco's finest police detectives? Even the hiding-in-broad-daylight identity of the masked killer is, I thought, obvious from very early on.
There is something deeply uncomfortable however about the sexualised nature of the killings in Lovemurder that the author wants to explore here. Saul Black's greatest asset here is his ability to get into the heads of his characters and relate it to a wider and deeper philosophical discourse on relationships and the blurring of lines between love and cruelty. What really makes people tick? What makes some people capable of love and others cruel? At what point does love or cruelty turn into the need to kill? Saint or sinner; are they just two sides of the same coin?
That Harvey Dent 'Two-Face' conundrum might appear to be equally at home in Batman comic book philosophy as the earlier Riddler plot point - Katherine and Valerie even sparring over one of those "we're not so different you and I" moments in a high security prison interview room, but Saul Black dresses it up well. It's more than just dressing up however; it's also about power and manipulation, which is a trait of the serial killer as much as it can have a part to play in normal human relationships. Sexual activity can also be an arena for this, so Black is justified to some extent for the rather graphic content of the book, but he is also remarkably adept at tying it all together into something that is on some level coherent and genuinely exploratory.
As a writer, Black is not beyond employing some of those manipulation techniques himself, planting 'Napoleon's white horse' images into the head of the reader for effects that can be deployed later. Despite the apparent failings or weaknesses in the plot, the writing in Lovemurder does have a way of getting inside the reader's head and it is a thrilling read. On one level you are appalled at being seduced by such a cheap serial killer plot, but at the same time fascinated by your own reaction to the lurid detail and the deeper questions it raises. Whether Lovemurder comes to any conclusions or provides any interesting new insights is debatable, but it does give the reader something to think about amidst all the thrills and spills.
Lovemurder by Saul Black is published by Orion on 17th November 2016
Lovemurder - Saul Black ****