by Stephen Leather
150 pages, Three Elephants (Kindle edition)
Reviewed by Bill Kirton
Apart from anything else, I’ll remember this novella as the first book I’d read on my new Kindle and it’s not clear whether it was the novelty of reading an ebook or the tension in the story itself which made me read it in two relatively short sittings. (Yes, it is clear – The Basement is a page-turner, and I’ll be careful not to spoil the ending.)
It consists of a double narrative. One tracks the progress of the torments a serial killer inflicts on a particular woman, held captive in the basement, as well as hinting at the fates of previous victims; the other is a first person narrative by a writer who’s suspected of being the killer and pursued by a good cop/bad cop couple – the good one female, the bad one male.
Leather ties the two strands together very cleverly. (Apologies for the punning nature of that sentence but that’s the author’s name. To avoid confusion, I’ll call the character a writer and Leather the author.) Writer and killer share characteristics, modes of behaviour, habits. The writer even starts the story by saying ‘New York always brings out the serial killer in me. It’s a great city to kill in.’ He follows that with references to Son of Sam and others as well as quoting detailed statistics about the number of suspicious deaths in New York, dismembering and disposing of bodies and takes apparent delight in the processes. The words could easily be those of either a killer or a writer of murder mysteries. It’s all very clever.
Then, not only does the sequence of events dovetail between the two narratives, but also the tension and pace of each reflects the other. And the pace never flags. As the killer’s power over the woman increases and, having no option, she submits to the humiliations and pains, so the pressure exerted by the police investigation pushes the writer further and further into apparent guilt.
He doesn’t help his cause by being a smart-ass and dealing out one-liners to them, frustrating them to breaking point and yet knowing enough about the law to give them nothing with which to charge him. He has an elevated opinion of himself and of his worth as a writer, and yet he’s never been recognised. He’s convinced that, if he can get one of his screenplays, many of which he summarises for us and all of which involve murder most foul, into the hands of Woody Allen or Brian da Palma, they’ll love them. He knows all their New York addresses and waits outside their apartment blocks. He even confesses that he’s worked out some of his best plots as he was waiting.
The problem is that he can’t get past the secretaries, whose ‘primary function in life seems to be to block anyone who shows the least bit of creative talent from making it to the top’. According to him, ‘it's like there's a conspiracy, a conspiracy of talentless nobodies who resent those with ability and who are determined to do all they can to keep them down’. The autobiographical motive for this contempt of secretaries emerges later.
I enjoyed all this very much, but it’s time to pause and insert a wee moan. For someone with such skill at building tension and telling stories – as well as the main narrative, all the screenplay ideas are excellent – Leather lets himself down with his occasional typos or actual mistakes. Look at these:
• ‘A real writer needs to suffer for their art’
• "Can I help you?" he asks. His voice is the sound of grating metal.
"No," I said. "Thank you."
"Are you waiting for someone?" he says.
• ‘It's no surprise whose going to be playing the good cop.’
• ‘Writer's write, that's what we do. You know, like detectives detect.’
I mean, if he knows detective in the plural doesn’t have an apostrophe, why give one to writers? And exactly the same mistake occurs elsewhere. He even makes the classic it’s/its error. I know it’s trivial and that most readers don’t notice such things, but for a talented author such as Leather who builds his effects so carefully, it’s disappointing to see such laxity.
My other moan concerns the ending. There’s a very good twist. I didn’t see it coming, but he signals it much earlier than he needs to, which takes the edge off its impact – only a little, but it does.
But these niggles certainly shouldn’t dissuade you from reading it. As I said, it’s a page-turner, it triggers many different emotions, has a fascinating central character and is a tight, entertaining construction. It’s scary and fun.