Thursday, 22 April 2010

"American Devil", Oliver Stark

"American Devil" is overtly and unashamedly a hard boiled American cop thriller. If Quintin Jardine's "Blood Red" was metaphorically a little like "Rosemary and Thyme" Oliver Stark's debut novel is much more in the gritty space occupied by "Criminal Minds" and "Messiah". Make no mistake, this isn't 'nice' crime we're dealing with here, this is something a lot darker.

Stark's debut novel treads the well worn path of noirish American serial killer novels. There's the familiar in the troubled renegade detective, pugilist bird watcher Tom Harper, and in the deeply psychological nature of the crime and its investigation. There's a lot of violence, related using what is often arresting language. Homage is paid in particular to Thomas Harris, with a West Virginian origin to the plot, and a set piece involving a pig farm.

Impressively Stark succeeds in keeping tension high with the slow unveiling of the killer's identity, and the numerous decision points, where they could have been stopped, and is not. This combines with the effective ploy of revealing the killer's identity towards the middle of the book,

Often with serial killer fiction, the multitude of victims lessens the impact - you don't learn enough about the background to the victims to identify with them, and thus their death is not as affecting, akin to the argument that as the bodycount goes up the shock value goes down. When taken to absurd degrees it enters the realm of slapstick slasher horror, and care needs to be taken to avoid this fate. Thankfully Stark has enough tools in his repertoire to avoid this pitfall in most (if not quite all) cases; just enough hints are given about the victims for you to start to care a little, and the manner in which narrowly escape, then fall back into the killer's clutches plays with the reader and for all that it probably is predictable, it still works on a sufficiently consistent basis to keep the pages turning.

The book's not completely flawless. The killer's psychological issues don't always feel completely convincing, and most of the victims, by their nature, are highly one dimensional. It's dark, it's disturbing, but it's not quite Elmore Leonard. There are moments too where dialogue is a little stilted, in particular there are times when the killer announces that he is the 'American Devil', somehow there's almost too many syllables involved, and it's a struggle to feel that the conversation is real.

Stark is a self-confessed fan of American pulp crime fiction, and sometimes you get the impression that he might be trying ever so slightly too hard to write in this vein. Language such as - "these were top dogs of the detective bureau and they were already shitting nickels" - conjures up a latter day Dashiel Hammett and Sam Spade, which in a world of "The Wire", or even "NYPD Blue", seems strangely anachronistic - as though this is a 1950s detective story forced through a time machine into the 21st century.

Bearing these mild issues in mind, the book is ideal travel fodder (or, alternatively given volcanic ash is doing its best to return us to a pre-aviation eta, ideal for sitting around waiting to travel). The combination of a fast paced storyline and short chapters make it a quick and easy read, and engaging in terms of driving the reader to find out what happens. Don't look to this as great literature, instead see it as a good story that manages to pull strings regarding elemental fears about intruders in your home. For those of nervous disposition, it's probably not one to read alone at night either.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book as a review copy from Hodder Headline


  1. Oh dear! I have a publisher copy of this to read, via a recommendation from Random Jottings blog. Reading your review, it seems that I may not like this very much - serial killers not my thing, nor is hard boiled. But, I will give it a try at some point.

  2. Hi Maxine, I fear if you take away the hard boiled and the serial killer aspects of this you're not going to be left with very much at all!

    To be honest the book provoked a lot of thought in my mind about what sort of crime I like to read. While I enjoyed the book, staying awake longer than I should have to finish it, I really don't see myself revisiting it, while other, less graphic crime fiction I'll happily reread should the mood take me. It would have been easy for a book with a bodycount quite as high as this to end up indulging in the pornography of violence, and the fact that it avoids this says that Stark's got a certain something.

    I'll be really interested in what subsequent books look like, as he refines what he wants to write about, gets the first book rush of enthusiasm out of his system, and perhaps critically builds a rapport with his editor. Go in the right direction and he could be consistently good.