Tuesday, 4 August 2009

“Stop Me”, Richard Parker

Explicitly aimed at the holiday reading market, most clearly shown by the innovative marketing approach taken by publishers Allison & Busby in having author signings in airports through August, Richard Parker's debut novel, "Stop Me", is a novel about murder, kidnap, insanity, and mistrust.

The central premise is that of an email chain letter with a deeply dark edge. The killer starts a chain email, describing the victim and asking the recipients to pass on the message if they want them to be saved. If they receive the email back through the usual chain mail process the victim is saved, otherwise they are killed. This is a somewhat unsettling premise; it plays to our fears of randomness in the world, and our awareness that most of us would delete a message like that, regarding it as an obvious case of spam. However it does raise an interesting question. Spam is very much an internet age phenomenon, transcending the familiar territory of junk mail into something much more intrusive. In this day and age however there is the real question of whether a chain letter ever really works. Reading "Stop Me" made me think when last I'd opened an obvious piece of spam even remotely akin to that sent by the "Vacation Killer"? Spam still unquestionably exists, but the vast majority of it is swept unseen into spam or junk mail folders in our email clients. In this light, is "Stop Me" destined to be a curiosity piece representative of a fleeting period in the late 20th and early 21st century?

It is often held that the higher the body count the lower the overall level of shock, as the reader undergoes a process of desensitisation. Put cinematically a drama with a lone death will remain with the viewer much longer than a hackneyed 'slasher movie'. "Stop Me" is unflinching in its violence. In the first two brief chapters 12 people die, and the central kidnapping takes place. However, this is less a story about murder as one man's attempt to come terms with the disappearance of his wife. The shock experienced by protagonist Leo Sharpe at the utterly unexpected disappearance of Laura and the freefall his life enters into in its aftermath is compelling, if at times perplexing.

The book is written in a sparse, minimalist style and predominantly told from Leo's internalised perspective. This won't work for everyone, and isn't usually what I would go for. It has upsides and downsides. Positively, it keeps the plot moving along with the minimum of distraction, and focuses the reader on the core story of Leo Sharpe's quest for his wife, driven by his unshakeable conviction that she is not dead. Conversely it means that the plot lacks a level of richness and sense of place, and in missing out in some more subtle narrative tools the reading experience at times feels on the shallow side. This also has the effect of leaving questions in the back of the reader's mind about the deeper motivations of characters such as the enigmatic Dr Mutatkar and the sinister Cleaves.

Declan Burke on the Crime Always Pays blog, writing about John Banville, makes the point that "crime fiction fans tend to favour character, plot and narrative over the inventive use of language". This is probably a fair point, and in the case of "Stop Me", at times the emphasis is placed on plot to the exclusion of almost anything else; and thankfully, the plot is great. Tension is maintained throughout the full 336 pages, with a deep curiosity about the motivations underpinning the "Vacation Killer", exploring Leo's journey through the crisis his life has fallen into, and ultimately waiting to discover what precisely is the tableau being presented by Parker is, and this is certainly not one easily predicted. The effect of this is to overwhelm any reservations about linguistic sophistication and comparatively one dimensional characterisation and ensures that at no point is there a temptation to cast the book aside.

It's not great literature, it's probably not the best crime novel of 2009, but as an engaging take on how the internet mixed with celebrity culture can complicate the traditional serial killer story, delivered in a fast paced way, it works.

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