2 February 2017

Review: Kill the Next One

Kill The Next One
Federico Axat (Trans David Frye)
Text Publishing, 26 January 2017
PB, 414pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of this book.

This is a very hard review to write without spoilers, in fact, impossible, although I have tried to keep them as mild as I can to protect enjoyment of the book. But there is a twist in this book you really do not want to know about so I recommend stopping reading where I warn below.

(But then please come back after you've read the book and let me know what you think - I'd love to discuss this book with others who've read it).

We begin in media res. Ted McKay is about to shoot himself in the head. He's made meticulous preparations; chosen a time when his wife, Holly, and daughters, Nadine and Cindy are away; stuck a note on his office door to warn Holly - and he's hidden the family photographs.

Ted is suffering from an inoperable brain tumour and sees this as the only way out.

Then he's shown another way.

A stranger, Justin Lynch, turns up, offering a deal. If Ted kills two men, he will in turn be added to a death list maintained by "The Organisation". One of the men, Edward Blaine, is a murderer who's got away with his crime. The other, "Wendell" is a fellow member, who wants to die. Ted will still die, but this way, he gets to inflict a little justice, and his death is murder, not suicide - supposedly some comfort to his family. (Not sure I go along with this - the idea that suicide is a uniquely shameful thing, that is. On the other hand if you can't nerve yourself to do the deed, maybe it's better to have someone do it for you...)

How Lynch knows about Ted's intentions is not explained.

The story really takes off from there this most thrillery premise. We see Ted attempt to carry out his side of the bargain - and then when things inevitably go wrong, to escape from the situation he's got himself into. He finds out, of course, that all is not entirely as Lynch said - and that there are connections between himself and the victims. Trying to track down Lynch, he seems to have stumbled on something both deeper and more complex than he thought, with twists, turns and false information aplenty.

This first part of the story is taut, convincing (if you accept the suicide premise) and adrenaline-soaked, an atmospheric thriller enhanced by hints that something odd was going on - for example, the repeated eruptions into the text of an opossum, always described as evil, disgusting or predatory, which Ted along can seen, or the contradictory versions of certain events. If Ted is suffering from a brain tumour, how much of what he's seeing is real? What effect might that have - or have had - on his (always absent) family?

Then, the story shifts abruptly to something very different, focussing on Ted and his history. The remainder of the book lets this play out, including a look back at Ted's childhood and college years.

It's at this point that I find it hard to discuss the detail os the story further without spoilers. So here is the warning - look away now if you haven't read the book and want it to have its full effect...

Still with me?

Are you sure?

Well...

Then you'll know that in the remainder of the story, Ted is seeking to understand his past. He doesn't have a tumour, but has been behaving strangely and his experiences in the first part were not wholly real. Wendell hinted that he might be the victim of a deeper plot: perhaps this is why psychologist Dr Laura Hill is now interrogating him? Why she's delving into his past?

And what has become of Ted's wife and girls?

Who was Wendell - and is he alive, or dead?

Will Ted ever escape the situation he got into, and find happiness with his family?

This part of the story is such a change that it's almost like starting again. Axat has very deftly set up the story as one thing and then it turns into something very different. There is much probing of responsibility, much outing of hidden secrets, with the theme of childhood and the impressions that it makes on us explored repeatedly from different angles (Ted's story and those of some others here are counterpointed with glimpses of Dr Hill's own son and of Ted's daughters).

But those pesky possums keep showing up...

I think your view of this book will be coloured by how prepared you are to accept the shift. For me, it didn't quite work. Despite Axat's compelling narration and Frye's able translation, I felt perhaps there is just too much material to be covered to keep the suspense - highlighted, perhaps, by the way an epilogue is used to explain some of the backstory, material which might have been in the main text but which I can see would have been difficult to integrate. There's also the issue that while much of what we learn in the present day parts of the story is based on Ted's recollections, and he is a very unreliable narrator, when we go into the past there is a more neutral point of view and a suggestion we're getting the unvarnished truth. The two approaches jar slightly.

So while it's often a thrilling and compelling story, and concludes with a blaze of action which injects real excitement, I felt this book did lose its way in the middle somewhat. But you may well disagree - and I'd be interested to know if you do.

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