A review described the serial killer at the center of The Killing Lessons: A Novel, by Saul Black (St. Martin’s Press, 2015) as more brilliant than any other of his kind. Instead he turned out to be fairly typical--bright, sly, demented, and crafty--in the end a basic serial killer, the kind who happens along far more often in literature than in real life.
The book begins with a warm description of her mother and two children, who are living in isolation in the north woods. We see the mother and her son and her daughter in various poses replete with human detail. The entire point of this exposition is to prepare us for the moment when the serial killer and his accomplice arrive. It’s clear they mean to kill and torment and that their real victim is the mother. There’s something incredibly gruesome about such an approach—convincing us to like the victims and then slaughtering the victims. It invites us to participate in a form of perverse voyeurism. The little girl escapes, and throughout the novel her efforts to avoid the killer becomes a continuing plotline. So too does the effort of Valerie Hart, a detective who’s been trying to identify and capture the killer for years. She has her own distinct pathology, along with an unknown adversary, and a tendency towards rash behavior that cause her increasingly complicated problems as she moves towards identifying the killer. This novel is written well enough. It’s entertaining, and the prose style and characterizations are above average. Its plot is, however, fairly ordinary. Ordinariness doesn’t prevent it from succeeding as an entertainment, but it does prevent it from rising above itself.
Saul Black is a pseudonym for Glen Duncan, author of The Last Werewolf, a book which works better than this one.