13 October 2016
When you read a new Terry Tyler novel, the only thing you can count on is that you can’t count on anything. I can think of very few other authors who change and mix genres so regularly that it’s become their definition. Her latest novel, The Devil You Know, is no exception.
The book opens with a prologue as a young woman named Dora flashes back to the heartbreaking steps leading to her realization that she’s about to be murdered. Chapter One then goes back in time to a year earlier, as the news breaks of a body—the third one in six months—found in the local river Lynden in South Lincolnshire, England. Slowly, local residents realize that one of them, perhaps someone they know, is a murderer, one who will most probably strike again.
At this point in the usual detective series, the search for a serial killer would belong to a damaged detective (probably Swedish, with a drinking problem and a history of failed personal relationships). Or perhaps it would be a beautiful young woman, torn between two love interests as she’s stalked by the killer. Or the detective could even be an old lady (bonus points if she knits), or a quirky heroine with a quirky best friend (probably gay)—but either way, cupcakes and cats would certainly be involved.
Oh, wait—this is a Terry Tyler book. That means that there are only two things you can be sure of: it will be character driven, and those characters will steadfastly refuse to be trapped in genre tropes. She starts with the premise: what if there are several reasonable people who have looked at the evidence—the generic composite drawing, the opportunity, the motive—and realize that it all points to someone in their own life? How long will they resist that knowledge, knowing that delay might mean more deaths?
One thing many detective stories have in common—a staple, in fact, of the police procedural—is the bit where they talk about all the nut cases who call in “tips” after hearing about the crime. But in fact, the reality is that many crimes are solved by those closest to the criminal. Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, was a brilliant murderer who successfully eluded police until named by his brother David, who later wrote: “It was a feeling of being trapped – trapped in this brother relationship, trapped in this dilemma in which people’s lives were at stake either way. One way, if we did nothing, another bomb might go off and more people might die. The other way, I turned Ted in and he would be executed.”—David Kaczynski for The Guardian
Thus the book’s chapters will each be owned by a specific character. Juliet is a middle-aged housewife whose bullying husband beats and demeans her, even as she tries to hide her shame from her sons and the world. Steve is a shy young man who has always depended on his best friend, Dan, despite his growing concern about Dan’s new friends and their criminal ties. Tamsin is a young professional in love with a colleague who she realizes has taken advantage of her. Dorothy is an older woman, a single mother who has raised her beloved son with humor and grace, but who discovers he’s keeping a big part of his life secret from her. Maisie is the teenager who is so close to real life girls I’ve known (and been) that it’s almost eerie. She’s a mix of self-centered, generous, loving, selfish, wildly imaginative, and naive—convinced that she knows so much about the world, but mystified about the way it really works.
And in between, we get glimpses of the other two main groups of actors: the victims, and the baffled police. But the story doesn’t belong to them; it actually lives inside the heads of each of the amateur detectives. And that’s where Terry Tyler shines. As we share each of their chapters, we see the logic building to each one of their conclusions that the killer is the person so central to their lives. And, in a unique touch, we see the aftermath of that decision for each character.
One of the most difficult things a writer can do is convincingly switch point of view, changing voice and pace and world view for each character. To then show each and every one of these characters—as they change and develop, as they fight the realization of what speaking up might mean, and as they grow toward their own personal moment of truth—is the sign of a master writer. To do it with flawless command and ownership—inviting the reader to try to guess which door hides a killer and which is just a mirror of the character’s own fears—is a unique and incredible feat. And even more, to make all that seem so natural that the reader doesn’t really question each character’s chain of logic or stop to second guess the plot? That is Terry Tyler’s particular brand of genius.
***I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.***