Thursday 22 February 2018

Infuriating and mesmeric... Alex Barclay's cop character keeps formula fresh

Alex Barclay
Alex Barclay
Killing Ways

Eilis O'Hanlon

The experimental American novelist Raymond Federman famously quipped: "Plots are for dead people". That's never more true than in crime fiction, where plots are not only for, but also about, dead people.

All too often, the mechanics of an investigation become little more than a framework on which the story hangs like rags on a scarecrow. Suspects. Autopsies. Clues. Hunches. Revelations. The details change; textures differ; but not by much.

The plot of Irish writer Alex Barclay's new novel is no different in that respect. Her villain is simply the latest in a long line of deranged serial killers hunting down defenceless women.

Two victims are found dead in Denver. A third soon follows. Possibly there are more victims in the past. There usually are.

An FBI team is set up under Special Agent Ren Bryce to investigate. In due course, she teams up with another cop from New York with his own personal reasons for wanting to catch the killer.

There's nothing here that hasn't been done a million times before, so it needs a good reason to stick with it. In this case, there is. That's Ren herself.

Flawed detectives with drinking problems and disastrous love lives are two a penny; being a bit unhinged is part of the job description. Even by the genre standards of dysfunctional detectives, however, Ren does some remarkably stupid things. She does smart things too, but somehow it's the stupid things that make her most interesting.

The reason she does them is because she's bipolar, though she's not taking her medication because "I can't afford to be numb, I need a sharp mind, I need to solve things, make connections, have clarity".

Again, this is all very familiar, but the way in which it affects all her relationships, with friends, lovers, colleagues, is done with unusual effectiveness.

Ren is infuriating, but there's something mesmeric about her, too. The strain of dark humour that runs through Barclay's writing helps. Ren carries on a continual, funny internal monologue, commenting in usually less-than-impressed fashion on the actions both of herself and fellow characters. One keeps turning the page not so much to find out what happens next, as to hear what she will say about it.

When she tells her boyfriend that she likes the way his mind works, he replies: "It's pretty much how most people's minds work."

"Ouch," she thinks.

Without Ren, the details of the story might arguably be too gruesome, suitable only for those with the strongest of stomachs, as the list of victims keeps growing longer.

Some chapters are told from the point of view of the killer, another staple of modern crime writing, but here the effect is particularly claustrophobic and terrifying.

In a genre where the token psychopath often seems to be self-consciously playing the role of The Serial Killer, it's a chilling insight into the mind of a man who hates women so much that he doesn't simply want to kill them as to existentially destroy them.

This is Ren Bryce's fifth outing as lead character, and there are even some familiar characters going right back to Alex Barclay's first book, but it still feels fresh, as if there's more to say.

The pace is fast, without feeling rushed; the twists never feel forced; and the denouement, when it comes, is almost unbearably intense and shocking. If Ren was traumatised before, it doesn't bear thinking what she'll be like when the sixth in the series begins; but it will be enthralling to find out.


Killing Ways

Alex Barclay

Harper Collins, price £12.99stg, p&p 400

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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