Scotsman Douglas Lindsay, author of the long-running Barney Thomson crime series, has crafted a new stand-alone detective vs. serial killer novel set in modern-day Britain. While WE ARE THE HANGED MAN is not without flaws, it provides plenty of creepy, violent moments for horror fans and those who like their crime fiction mixed with a dose of brutality and gore.
Mild plot spoilers follow.
Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Robert Jericho is a former hotshot London crime-solver who now works as a small town detective. While he’s solved many high-profile cases in his career, he has shunned the media spotlight for the last decade since his wife’s mysterious disappearance. Nevertheless, his boss forces him to participate as an on-air police consultant on a hit reality TV show, “Britain’s Got Justice.” This proves to be a major distraction from Jericho’s efforts to track a serial killer – a man from Jericho’s past who resumes his killings after a thirty-year hiatus – and find out who and why someone is sending him tarot cards ominously depicting the Hanged Man. Nothing is at all straight-forward here, with many twists and turns along the way, and before it’s all over, Jericho himself will be suspected of murder and hunted by the police.
While I ultimately enjoyed WE ARE THE HANGED MAN, I have some criticisms of it. Most importantly, I was a bit dissatisfied with the protagonist, DCI Jericho. He’s unrelentingly glum and rarely speaks, even when asked direct questions by colleagues and superiors. Seriously. As in, other characters have entire, one-sided conversations with him and he often only stares at them until they depart in uncomfortable silence. A certain amount of misanthropy can be charming in a protagonist, but this goes a bit far for my taste. In addition, Jericho is, somehow, a ladies’ man who seems to have a series of one-night stands. I’m not sure why women would be attracted to a man sitting alone at a bar in silence, but that’s Jericho’s life outside work. There were also times, especially toward the first third of the novel, when I felt oddly disconnected from Jericho’s backstory. While this is nominally a stand-alone novel (or the first of a new series?), there were a number of points when I felt like I missed out on a previous book that introduced Jericho and his colleagues. In some ways, WE ARE THE HANGED MAN felt like a book coming near the end of a long-running series. The plot proceeds in fits and starts: there will be rapidly moving sections filled with action and violence – Lindsay is certainly no shrinking violet when it comes to depictions of graphic violence – followed by long lulls when the investigation stalls. The 364-page book certainly could have been trimmed by fifty pages without harming it a bit. Lindsay feels the need to tie in an odd secret society sort of conspiracy subplot that seems out of place; it certainly feels tacked on, superfluous, and never fully explored.
Having said all that, the serial killer of the piece is a genuinely interesting character. Lindsay has done a good job of creating a truly creepy villain with out-of-the-ordinary motivations and methods. Many of the secondary characters, in fact, are well drawn, even if some are fairly stereotypical. I would especially recommend this one if you have a strong visceral reaction to the glut of “reality TV shows” the airwaves are flooded with these days. Lindsay’s social commentary about the state of modern society and its apparent obsession with reality TV is over-the-top at times, but it’s also hilarious, adding an infusion of comedy in what could have been an unrelentingly bleak serial killer novel.
I wanted to like this one more than I did. It has all the right elements: a creepy serial killer, a cat-and-mouse game between a detective and an old foe, and mysterious deliveries of tarot cards. But somehow, with a mostly unlikable protagonist and a plot that periodically drags, I can’t recommend WE ARE THE HANGED MAN without some reservations. If you are a huge fan of serial killer novels, especially British ones, then by all means pick it up; despite my criticisms, there’s plenty to enjoy here.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers