Thursday, 12 March 2015

The Jackdaw

The Jackdaw

It’s a hard decision whether to read a book in a series when you haven’t read the earlier novels. Will you feel there is something that you’ve missed? How can the author get across backstory and make his characters well rounded for new readers, while avoiding repetition for those who’ve read the earlier offerings? The Jackdaw is apparently book 4 in the DI Sean Corrigan series but it is the first of Luke Delaney’s books that I have read, so I approached it with some trepidation. But I needn’t have worried. While there were hints of events from earlier books – for example, a supporting character, Sally, suffered some kind of traumatic attack in a previous book – I never felt at a loss for not having read the earlier books. In effect this worked as a self-contained story and I felt the characters were well developed and believable.

The plot itself revolves around a man who kidnaps bankers and people working in the financial sector and tortures and kills them on Yourview (basically a version of Youtube). While doing so he preaches and rails against their greed and portrays himself as an avenging angel of the common people. All very topical then. Without giving away any spoilers, there are various twists and turns and unsurprisingly everything isn’t as it first appears. I found the plot believable and a welcome change from the usual psycho-killer fare that seems to populate most police procedurals. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, the author’s earlier work is of such ilk.  There is nothing earth shatteringly different about this book, it’s not revolutionary, it’s just that it was nice to have the motivation of the killer something different than the usual foaming at the mouth serial murderer.

That said there was one problem with this book that nearly killed it for me. This should be a five star read, but the author’s aversion to the word “said” reduces it to a four star one.  The writer Sandra Newman and the literary agent Howard Mittlemark wrote a book for aspiring writers a few years back titled How Not To Write A Novel. In it they advised that readers ignore the word “said”, they simply don’t notice it. But as soon as a writer starts to replace it with alternatives, readers notice, big time. I never really knew what they meant until now. Characters in this novel tell each other things, they explain, they point out, they argue, they complain, but never say. It’s galling and makes the dialogue odd in places. For example sometimes the detectives will be discussing the case and one of them will say something to another. But in Delaney’s world they don’t “say”, they “explain”, which immediately makes the character sound patronising. For surely the second officer would know this, he doesn’t need this obvious point of law or evidence “explained” to him.

There is one other issue that grated with me. At one point the psychologist, Anna, is talking to the main character Sean about what could possibly motivate the killer. She argues that he might not be mad, but might truly believe in what he’s doing and thus willing to commit atrocities. As way of illustration she tell Sean that the Viet Cong would chop off the limbs of children American soldiers had inoculated. Great story, the problem though is it took me just a few minutes on Google to discover that it is almost certainly untrue. In fact the allegation comes from the Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. A few years back some academics that doubted the providence of the tale got in contact with the filmmakers to ask where they got such an anecdote. It turns out that there was a US Special Forces soldier advising the production company. One of the many anecdotes he regaled them with was the story of the Viet Cong amputations of inoculated villagers. But that is the sole record the academics could find of this event. One US soldier advising a film crew. No record could be found from the time, no media reports, no files in the archives, no other witnesses. You would think that if the Viet Cong did this the American military would have paraded this atrocity for the world’s media, after all it would be a PR coup, a chance to show the world how brutal their enemy could be. But nothing. This took me literally seconds on Google to discover. Does this matter? Afterall, the Jackdaw is just a novel, right? Well actually, I think it does. Firstly, in the context of the story, one has to ask whether a psychologist advising a police inquiry really would use such a tale of questionable providence to make her point. But secondly there’s an issue here for writers more generally. That is in the internet age you simply can’t get away with this kind of thing anymore. In the past author’s didn’t have to contend with Google. But in today’s world, somebody will always check. So if you are going to use reports of atrocities and war crimes to illustrate your novel, you best make sure to get it right.

On the whole I liked this novel, despite the two faults I outline above and my harsh critique of them. It is a solid police procedural that keeps the reader interested throughout. The characters are well rounded, the villain has a believable motive, and there is a real air of menace. Just can the author please learn to love the humble word “said”.     

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

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