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Lacklustre pace, minimal tension and two extraordinarily underdeveloped lead characters. Amateur.
on 9 April 2017
On the basis of the seductively original premise which promises a deadly cat and mouse pursuit of a ruthless serial killer without a motive by a grief-stricken detective who obsessively follows his trail, I should have enjoyed Eye Contact immensely. Disappointingly, the woeful execution does the synopsis a disservice and I struggled to wade through the interminably mundane prose, the lacklustre pace and two lead characters who are extraordinary underdeveloped.
Robert Naysmith, a successful, confident and well groomed sales director in his late thirties is in Bristol on business when he is presented with the opportunity to continue a lethal game of life or death which has left a trail of unsolved murders in his wake. His cover is his charismatic personality and to all intents and purposes ability to successfully function in his everyday life. Why he does so is never explored in any depth, but occasional lapses into dream sequences hint at an unhappy childhood, so I presume that is supposed to be the implied trigger. Unfortunately I am still none the wiser about the drivers behind his killing spree, however I presume they are thrill killings, defined as premeditated murder that is motivated by the sheer excitement of the act. Naysmith's introduction of a random factor in selecting his chosen targets is wonderfully original, with his quarry being the first unlucky soul that makes eye contact with him once the game is 'in play'. From that moment on the clock starts ticking with a twenty-four hour head start for the target and a chance to disappear keeping Naysmith on his toes. His first victim is a young female jogger and his preparation, stressing the importance of patience and details is endlessly observed by McNeill, as befitting a sociopathic serial killer. When the victims body is discovered on the Severn Beach and the case is assigned to D.I. Graham Harland operating out of Avon and Somerset Constabulary, the excitement and promise of something to occupy his lonely hours sends a shiver down his spine. The victim is Vicky Sutherland and the cause of her death is asphyxiation with the killers gloved hand introducing a clear sign of premeditation. A lack of forensics leaves an absence of leads and the exposure of the body to the motion of the tides is another headache muddying the findings. In her possession are three keys attached to a keyring, two of which are obviously for her front door but the third one, which holds a decent thumbprint, goes unidentified. When the thumbprint is analysed it is discovered to belong to a man that she has no connection with and who himself was discovered dead four months ago, in a similar waterside location. And so begins the start of a sinister pattern of murders connected only by their apparent randomness and the deliberate placement of a 'souvenir' taken from the previous victim and left on the following victim signalling the work of the perpetrator.
As the series moves on and the impetus to investigate is handed to the appropriate investigating force in the region where the next body is discovered, the refusal of D.I. Graham Harland to pass on the baton and focus on other investigations seems obsessive. But how can he expect a killer who strikes at random to ever be caught when the usual 'tells' involving behavioural patterns and irrational hatred of a sector of society are so absent? With the 'souvenir' theory meaning that by the time the next body is discovered the police are already behind the curve and playing catch-up, and hence the frustrating investigation leads to tempers fraying. The portrayal of the investigating officers at Avon and Somerset Constabulary reads like a checklist of requirements for a stereotypical crime novel, from damaged and mourning D.I. Graham Harland struggling to find a reason to move on the wake of his wife's death a year ago and prone to the frequent bout of "red mist". His political superior, Superintendent Alasdair Blake, is keen on pep talks but seemingly blinkered to the difficulties that the unique investigation faces, with the sarcastic DS Pope who seems determined to wind Harland up through to DS James Mendel's unwavering support alongside. This forgettable cast brings little to the story and it seemed like a means of creating the tension as the pressure to deliver a result escalates.
I found the structure of this novel a little strange and I confess that it did nothing to enhance my enjoyment. The narrative switches back and forth from the viewpoint of the perpetrator to that of the lead detective but in contrast to the usual formula of alternate chapters which injects pace and tempt the reader into 'just one more chapter', McNeill strangely opts for recounting the snails pace build up, scoping of locations and eventual killing by Naysmith before moving to D.I. Graham Harland. Located around the South-West of England, there is plenty of descriptive prose featuring walks through the countryside and along the course of the river but McNeill would do well to understand that the hint of intrigue is often superior to overly elaborate descriptions which make it hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Eye Contact is however, a coherent if rather run of the mill serial killer novel, but achingly devoid of suspense and with pages of inane waffle as the killer scopes his new targets and locations, it drags along all feeling fairly lacklustre. The initial premise with the head-start given to the chosen target and the forfeit undertaken for a selection that is he cannot pursue, in this case a child, added intrigue but I was never convinced by Robert Naysmith, despite his controlling of lover, Kim. A failure to even offer a backstory leaves Eye Contact devoid of the usual insight into a sociopathic serial killers journey through the course of his life so far and I found it impossible to connect with the portrayal. In fact, Robert Naysmith wouldn't even need to make eye contact with me before I succumbed as the man could quickly bore me into submission! I would struggle to wholeheartedly recommend Eye Contact and for me it does not meet the criteria necessary for a thriller. The denouement goes right down to the wire and readers wishing to see how Eye Contact ends will need to be patient!
Eye Contact was a curious read, lacking the vibrancy and gusto which makes for a page-turning novel and with a wallowing lead detective, this is my first and last encounter with D.I. Graham Harland and Fergus McNeill. The lack of characterisation or exploration of the serial killers behaviour was my biggest struggle with this novel and the snail pace narration made this a book feel like a chore to persevere with. In the right hands I still think the premise has much to offer but a good editor to cut the unnecessary repetition is a must.
Review written by Rachel Hall (@hallrachel)