by P.R. Black
Aria, 474 pages
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
I suppose I’d better start with a disclaimer. I have never met Pat Black.
We have, however, known each other for about ten years. We first stumbled across one another’s writings on the Authonomy webpage. I was flinging about rough drafts of the first two Forrester adventures. He was pushing his giant monster novel “Snarl”. We hit it off over a shared love of goofy horror movies, Spielberg’s masterpiece “Jaws”, and not-so-subtle Star Wars references. When several refugees from Authonomy set up Booksquawk, Pat and I were invited onboard and the bromance continued. He’s always been encouraging of my scribblings, kindly reviewing them on this site and promoting them on his own. I’ve always been impressed by the quality of his short fiction and frustrated by his unwillingness to release “Snarl” into the wild. Several years ago, we collaborated on a totally unauthorised adaptation of Hammer horror movie “The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires”. It was a ridiculously easy novel to write, not just because of our near-obsessive familiarity with the source material, but because we genuinely ‘get’ one another’s writing style and gave each other space within the pages to do our own thing without stepping on the other’s toes. You’ll never get to see that book, by the way. We trampled gleefully through the hallowed halls of Hammer without permission and if we were to try and set that one free, I reckon their lawyers would smell blood. Undeterred, Pat and I have spent a few years throwing ideas back and forth for another collaboration. We’ve even raised the idea of meeting up in person to ‘flesh out’ the storyline over a few single malts. It hasn’t yet happened.
No, I’ve never met Pat Black. But it’s safe to say we’ve got history together.
“The Family” was scooped up by digital publisher Aria and marks Pat’s move into the big-leagues. Obviously, I was thrilled to hear he had secured a publishing deal but my excitement was dampened somewhat when I heard it was for a thriller and not one of his more esoteric pieces. I’ll happily read anything, but I’ve always felt modern thrillers to be a little bit on the generic side. They’re the kind of books you pick up at an airport or train station newsagents along with a prepackaged sandwich and a can of Coke. It’s a wonder that they don’t include them in the meal deals. Crisps, sandwich, drink, paperback. These thrillers are a bit like the sandwich in that you know exactly what you’re going to get. The central character will be a police officer or a journalist. Possibly divorced, maybe alcoholic, almost certainly physically or emotionally scarred in some way. There will be a killer. He or she will be both completely psychotic and preternaturally clever. Crimes will be committed, red herrings will be scattered throughout the story. Nobody will believe the hero but their dogged pursuit of the truth leads to a shock unveiling of the killer’s identity at the novel’s climax.
“The Family” does make use of some, if not all, of these tropes. The central character is Becky Morgan, a journalist who is on the trail of the murderer who butchered her family twenty years ago on a holiday in France. She’s understandably scarred by the experience, both physically and mentally. She’s seeing a therapist and is also a recovering alcoholic. The killer is both batshit bonkers and manages to fool British police and interpol by covering his tracks. The plot is twistier than a bowl of ramen noodles and the big reveal is suitably ridiculous in its unpredictability. What makes “The Family” stand out from all the other cookie-cutter thrillers is the way in which the author has put his own indelible mark on these familiar tropes. This is the point at which my admiration for Mr Black’s writing goes stratospheric, he makes this tired old genre feel fresh. And how, you might ask, does he do this? Well, I’ve mentioned before that Pat’s a horror nerd and this comes through in his writing. The killer wears a creepy mask made of animal bone and slaughters people in pseudo-ritual sacrifices. Violence in the novel (of which there is quite a lot) is handled coldly and clinically. Black does not shy away from the grisly details and there are a couple of moments in the novel that go to very dark places. What is more powerful about these moments is the speed at which the author takes us there. This is classic horror writing - we are lulled into a false sense of security before the rug is pulled from beneath us and we plunge into a moment of pure, unrelenting terror. There is one moment in particular in the book that really blew me away with its sheer coldness. It came out of nowhere and left me feeling sick to my stomach. I’ve seen a couple of negative reviews of this book from some tender souls over at Goodreads. I can’t help but feel they’ve missed the point. This is a thriller about a serial killer. It isn’t meant to be nice and leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. It’s meant to take you on a ride: a terrifying ride into a world of violent crimes, the dark web, ritual slaughter, and acts of white-knuckle desperation.
The plot is suitably convoluted and I challenge anyone to make an accurate prediction of where this one is going. Red herrings abound although the pace of the narrative never lets up. This is another aspect of the book that I feel is linked to Black’s background in horror. Horror never lets up - the best horror stories are relentless and leave the reader feeling like they’ve been through an emotional meat-grinder. This is why the short story is so well-suited to horror. Thrillers are less of a sprint and more of a marathon. They work best when they have quiet moments to give the reader time to relax and catch their breath before plunging into another set-piece. “The Family” doesn’t really slow down. There is something about the pacing of this book that is positively unnerving. We learn early on that even in the quiet moments, things are capable of going bad very quickly and this means that the reader is never allowed to get comfortable. Again, this translates as a somewhat uncomfortable read, where the reader becomes (like the central character) hypervigilant and twitchy.
Although the character of Becky sounds like she’s in the running for cliche-of-the-year, it’s a testament to Black’s skill as a writer that she emerges from the pages as a fully-formed person. She’s not exactly likeable and her single-minded determination to avenge her family certainly has echoes of Lisbeth Salander’s lack of empathy. The sub-plot of her struggle with alcohol is handled sensitively and, most importantly, it never dominates her identity - it is there, as a facet of her character, but not the be-all-and-end-all of her. This hint at her addictive personality does, however, go some way to explaining her unrelenting drive to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s not that she doesn’t want to let go of the past… she’s incapable of doing so.
Other characters are similarly well-rounded. Computer hacker Rupert, whose attempts to remain anonymous when chatting online to Becky provide some blessed, if brief, comic relief. Kindly friend of the family, boss, and occasional father figure, Jack Tullington is an instantly likeable (and hence incredibly suspicious) character. One character who I wanted to see more of was gangly tech whizz-kid Bernard, whose appearance in the final half of the book keeps the plot moving at a clip, but he is not really given enough space to become fully fleshed-out. This is, of course, a minor quibble. It’s rather like saying you don’t like “The Empire Strikes Back” because you never hear Lobot speak (and there’s my obscure Star Wars reference).
“The Family” is a highly accomplished thriller that ticks all the necessary genre boxes while also bringing a level of tension and gore that one would expect from a horror novel. It’s a twisted, often brutal thrill-ride that is never less than gripping. Aria have done well to snap up Mr Black and his refreshingly horrific take on the modern thriller. We folks at Booksquawk have known of his talents for years and it’s great to see one of our own get an opportunity to reach a wider audience (and then horrify them).
Now, if only someone could get around to publishing “Snarl”...
Hereward L.M. Proops