By Lori Moriarty
Usually when I see an author described as ‘the queen of (insert specific genre of fiction here)’ my brain hops straight to Agatha Christie. Her works have broken most records in terms of sales, translation, adaptation and awards but apart from the obvious reasons for her meriting the title, my Irish childhood was doused in her. David Suchet was constantly to be glimpsed in the corner of my Grandmother’s sitting room twirling his mustache (albeit on the television screen) while old battered copies of Christie’s works were dotted around the house. There was even a copy of the play The Mousetrap and stories of how grandaunts had seen the play performed in London. So when I came across ‘The Nothing Man’ by Christine Ryan Howard on Borrowbox and saw that the book image claimed Howard as ‘The queen of high-concept crime fiction’ I might just have rolled my eyes a little bit. But then I saw that this was a quote from Jane Casey, and I had just finished a couple of the Maeve Kerrigan books (also on Borrowbox) a few months back. I had enjoyed them a lot, they were clever and taut and I loved following Maeve’s wry voice and the depiction of a woman working in a traditionally male dominated field. So, I reasoned, Jane wouldn’t lie to me. Then a few days later a thread on the Rick O’Shea Book Club page dedicated to the book seemed like too much of a sign to me, I downloaded the audiobook and started listening. I finished it in two days and I slept (very badly) with the light on for the night sandwiched in between.
This is a book within a book with sections of the novel being presented as the true crime memoir ‘The Nothing Man’ by Eve Black, the sole survivor of a serial killer’s attack on her family. These sections are interspersed with a narrative which follows Jim Doyle, a security guard who has come across the book in the supermarket where he works and who is in fact ‘The Nothing Man’. His narrative follows his days as he races through the book, his anger growing as he begins to realise how close Eve is to the truth. The pacing and tension in the book are expertly handled, the narrative structure is such that the reader knows that it is going to build to some sort of showdown but even when it comes it’s not a disappointment as can often happen. It’s been a while since I read a book which manipulates the narrative like this. In many ways it reminded me of Wilkie Collins’ early ‘detective’/mystery novels with their many narrators and forms of writing. Playing with the narrative is necessary in a lot of crime fiction, in some attempt to create tension or to protect the secret at the heart of the novel. But we know the information which is typically guarded in crime fiction, we know who the criminal is from almost the very start. The crafting of the narrative is such that it obscures the actions of Eve and focuses on the life of Jim lending the novel and cat and mouse feel. However, even while these aspects of the book worked to add depth as I raced through the story, it still read as a thrilling crime novel, the kind that I loved to read on sunny holidays (back when they were a thing)
But it’s not.
Apart from Howard’s crafting of the narrative, her handling of the pacing and the tension, this is a book which delves into our popular obsession with serial killers. The book is aware, the featuring of Eve’s memoir allowing it to operate on a ‘meta’ level which sees it refer to the popular podcasts, websleuths, facebook groups, crime fiction publishing machine, book tours, articles and interviews of which it both belongs to and stands outside of. But it also has a scene in a lecture theatre where a packed room of first year college students can’t name a single victim of the many serial killers they’ve read about. There’s also the referencing of Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five, an impressive work of painstaking historical research which reclaimed the names and lives of the women murdered by the man known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ and behind it all is Michelle McNamara’s ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’ (both available on Borrowbox). In interviews, Catherine Ryan Howard has said that the idea of the book came from the reading of this book and the subsequent arrest of Joesph James DeAngelo (Golden State Killer)
“Two months after the book came out, a man was arrested and charged with the Golden State Killer’s crimes. It got me thinking: had he been aware of the book? Did he read it? What was his reaction to it if he did? I started planning a book that was half a (fictitious) true crime book and half the killer’s reaction to it as he reads.” (Catherine Ryan Howard quoted in a review of the book on writing.ie website)
At the end of the day, I’ve a feeling that Jane Casey was right. Howard’s novel manages to be a thrilling read but also expertly plays with narrative format. She examines society’s glorification of these nothing men and the loneliness and isolation that those they leave behind have to cope with. As I finish up this review I’ve just noticed that a colleague has named this as our recommended read for today, while another has joined in the Rick O’Shea comment thread so it seems as though the library workers of Ireland are all enjoying the novel at the moment. I’d also like to apologise for the review being a bit all over place, I haven’t slept very well and I’ve Catherine Ryan Howard and Jane Casey to blame for that!
All of the books mentioned in the review are to be found on the Borrowbox app (bar the text of Christie’s The Mousetrap)