Of the many things to admire and enjoy about The Nothing Man, its last line is one of the best. (Don't worry, no spoiler alert needed - I'm talking about the acknowledgements.) Catherine Ryan Howard concludes her new genre-bending psychological thriller with the words: "Finally, a disclaimer: this is a work of fiction. That means I made everything up, including the facts."
But back to the beginning. The opening is so deceptively simple it takes a while to understand just how wily this book of two distinct stories (but one killer) really is. The first story is a true-crime account of a series of unsolved attacks and murders written by Eve Black entitled The Nothing Man, A Survivor's Search for the Truth. Eve Black was the sole survivor of a horrific attack on her family: "I was 12 years old when a man broke into our home and murdered my mother, father and younger sister, Anna, seven years old then and for ever." At the time, it was the fifth such attack in two years, but because the perpetrator always covered his tracks so well, gardaí were unable to get anything on him. The media dubbed him the Nothing Man, and the Nothing Man he stayed.
Twenty years later, he remains unidentified and has presumably, gone to ground. Now grown-up and a creative writing student, Eve writes an article about the murders which despite being incredibly exposing ("it felt like flinging myself off a cliff") is cathartic. The piece goes viral, and she is encouraged by her tutor and a publisher to tell her story in a book that will be part-memoir, part-true crime investigation. Thus, the child who was left behind by the Nothing Man now becomes the woman determined to catch him. Her new publisher enlists the help of Ed Healy, the detective who led the original investigation. Healy readily agrees; he has remained obsessed by the case, despite the lack of either new leads or sustained interest from his superiors.
The chapters of Eve Black's memoir alternate with a second story, about supermarket security guard Jim Doyle. The reader gets to watch him reading Eve's book even as his own story is unfurling for us. (Stay with me here, it's worth it). Because the reader knows Doyle is the killer from the outset, rather than playing a game of catch up, we see him decide what to do in response to the realisation that someone is, all these years later, coming for him. As he turns the pages, he becomes increasingly furious: Eve is dangerously close to the truth of his identity. She has written clues into her memoir in her attempt to entrap the Nothing Man, and a real pleasure for the reader is trying to decode what they are before Doyle does. Seeing Doyle squirm and panic and set off on a new course of action is central to the thrill of the book: because Eve states clearly that she is going to find the killer, Doyle knows he has to find her first. The game is on, but who is chasing whom?
Doyle's victims all come across as distinct individuals, even those whose stories are not the primary focus, and the sense of unending pain for those lost lives feels genuine. Ryan Howard is honest on the subject of grief, her clear prose sparing us little. Eve, who goes to live with her grandmother after her parents' death, describes growing up with grief as being like "the effort required to live your entire life with your back pressed against bulging closet doors because if you move from them and they open, everything will come spilling out".
Ryan Howard's double-handed approach also allows her to explore the broken life of the criminal. Jim Doyle has a wife he despises and a college-age daughter he appears to have some feeling for in the ice-block that passes for his heart. The author is necessarily unforgiving in relation to his crimes, yet allows just enough light in to illuminate Doyle's miserable and distressing childhood. It's not done to exonerate his actions, but blunts the edges somewhat, revealing a messy human complexity, just as the better true-crime shows often do. Pitting the current obsession with the true-crime genre against a more traditional psychological suspense is the genius at the heart of the novel. By creating fictional fact and fictional fiction, she plays with the reader's expectations from the start to each of the ends.
Ryan Howard's acclaimed debut Distress Signals in 2016 marked her out as a writer destined for awards and bestseller lists alike. The Nothing Man is her fourth novel and has the cool confidence of her previous books. Well-paced and intelligent, it's a painstakingly-crafted thriller that deserves to be a huge hit.