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Seen it all before. Nothing original here
on 26 September 2010
A debut novel by a British writer with a story that is based in New York, about a psychopathic woman-killer that the media call the American Devil. NYPD's best detective Tom Harper tries to hunt him down.
To quote James Patterson, "What gives the variety of thrillers a common ground is the intensity of emotions they create, particularly those of apprehension and exhilaration, of excitement and breathlessness, all designed to generate that all-important thrill. By definition, if a thriller doesn't thrill, it's not doing its job." Ergo, American Devil is not a thriller.
You might like this if you're new to the genre, but if you're familiar with some of the countless serial-killer novels over the past twenty years, you'll find that this offers next to nothing new, original or memorable. It's something of a mish-mash of all the other well-known ideas and concepts from similar crime-fiction novels, be they average, good or outstanding. In this tale, well-to-do women are abducted, assaulted, tortured and murdered, with the killer usually taking a body part as a trophy. Tom Harper, a somewhat stereotyped detective with a good track record but with disciplinary issues, is assigned to the case. The love interest is represented by a female therapist who is initially involved as part of Harper's obligatory recovery schedule, but soon becomes drawn into the investigation until somewhat inevitably becoming the bait the killer uses to draw Harper into a corny showdown. Having called it 'love interest' however, it was never clear what the relationship really was or might be. It could never be classified as romance, that's for sure.
When a book of 454 pages has 119 chapters, you get the idea that each chapter is rather short. The sentence structure is also irritatingly short and curtailed, too, and utterly lacking in atmospheric narrative until the very end. I've seen staccato prose done well - James Ellroy's pretty good - and I've seen it done badly. This book falls into the latter group. As for characterisation, the aspect I crave in stories such as this that are usually very mainstream and predictable, again the writer fails to create good guys to really care for, or even a bad guy to really hate. For the first half of the book, the identity of the killer is unknown so character development falls upon the shoulders of the cop Harper and the therapist Denise Levene, but neither one of them stands out as a well-drawn or interesting character. After the writer seems to give up on these two, the killer's identity is revealed and for the second half of the tale he seems to become the focus of all the character attention, the one the author tries his hardest to develop and expand. But despite all these efforts, the murderer is but a pale shadow of landmark fictional killers such as Hannibal Lecter. Indeed, at one point Denise Levine accuses him of being 'nothing', which was unintentionally ironic because that was my impression too. It was a conflicting character-drawing, with so much mixture of hateful acts and split-personality normality that often it's difficult to decide where to place the killer in the reader's mind; there are subtle hints that we should feel a little sorry for him, but before that avenue can be explored it's forgotten and he returns to psychopath-mode again.
Many of the visual images seem to have been inspired by other creative minds. For example, the killer wants the cop to watch Denise Levine die - an idea seen a few years ago in Mission Impossible 3. There are several other examples of key incidents throughout the tale that could be said to have been copied from - or inspired by - all manner of books and films in recent years. Even the front cover has the sub-title 'He's stalking the streets and he wants to play' which made me think of the rather better Want to Play? by P J Tracy, and the killer-with-a-dual-personality concept has been done many times before, for example in When She Was Bad by Jonathan Nasaw. Of course, stories in which killers interact with the cop hunting them down are nothing new, but if you like that kind of thing, check out Chelsea Cain's debut novel Heartsick, which displays outstandingly good character development, and in a different class to this completely.
To his credit Stark tries hard to make a story out of it, but frankly he lacks natural talent as a story teller. Two stars is slightly generous, but to be fair it's not exactly bad - it's just endlessly unoriginal and I could hardly wait for the tedium to end.