The Novelettes Book Reviews

The Killing Lessons by Saul Black: Advanced Review


There exists an intangible, but undeniable division between crime and serial killer novels. I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘crime reader’, necessarily. I might pick up recommended crime books, but I’m not that interested in seeking them out otherwise. But real, honest-to-god serial killer novels are something of a fascination for me. I loved Silence of the Lambs, and reread it every year or so. For me, it’s the absolute standard for serial killer novels, and thrillers in general.

The blurb on the ARC of The Killing Lessons promises that with this book, Saul Black will teach readers the meaning of fear. We all know ominous proclamations of this ilk are certainly not uncommon in the world of thrillers, so I wasn’t all that intrigued at first. But then, I found out that Saul Black is the pseudonym of author Glen Duncan, of The Last Werewolf fame – so, as you can imagine, I was excited to read it.

The Killing Lessons is being touted as a ‘literary thriller’. This tells us from the outset that it’s designed to mesh with the genre expectations of thriller novels, while also retaining Glen Duncan’s signature literary prose. (Otherwise, it would just be a thriller, surely?)

Before I even started it, I was told repeatedly to expect big things from this book. I also received a warning not to read it at home alone (which I unwisely ignored). Although I was looking forward to reading it, I was also aware that after all this hype, this book might end up being underwhelming. Realistically, I knew that it would have to be quite exceptional to live up to the reputation it had already garnered.

I am pleased to say that it was exactly as good as I hoped it would be. Maybe better.

In The Killing Lessons, we meet a pair of serial killers and their victims. We are dropped straight into the fatigued homicide investigation and bear witness to the horror that has ruined lead detective Valerie’s life. We start counting down the hours that the latest victim might have left to live, while at the same time struggling through the clues that might lead Valerie to her while she’s still alive. And we wait with the young girl who escaped when her entire family was murdered, hoping that the killers won’t come back for her, and knowing that they will.

Glen Duncan’s incisive characterization is the defining quality of his writing. In The Killing Lessons, the reader comes to know the characters on an intimate level in a very short time. Because of this, the novel becomes a burdensome emotional investment, and you can’t help but see it through.

There are several different point of view characters, whose storylines are converging from the outset of the narrative, and each of them is as complex and fascinating as the next.

Valerie is the alcoholic police officer whose obsession with catching these serial killers has brought her to her knees. Carla, an FBI agent with an inexplicable vendetta against Valerie, is doggedly monitoring her for any signs of incompetence as their hunt for the killer begins to narrow its focus.
Riddled with sciatica and immobilized by grief, novelist Angelo intended to spend some time alone in his woodland cabin coming to terms with his wife’s death. His reverie is disrupted when he opens the door to find a young girl, hypothermic and near-dead, on his front porch. Eleven year-old Nell escaped the scene of her family’s murder and fled to the only other occupied house in the area – Angelo’s. With her broken bones and his crippling pain, they are sitting ducks for the murderers who will inevitably return to the scene of their crime.

This is the third Glen Duncan novel that I’ve read. I’ve noticed that in each one, he holds a particular place in the narrative for love. Big-scale, romantic love; small, platonic familiar love; sudden, pitying, desperate love: each has its place in his stories. It’s particularly surprising in a novel as brutal as The Killing Lessons, but the shock factor makes it all the more evident.

There are a few aspects of The Killing Lessons that struck me (and the other people who read the ARC) as slightly unrealistic. For one, I thought it a little unrealistic that Angelo could have physically cared for Nell for an extended period of time when he was so frail himself. Much ado was made about the severity of his pain before Nell showed up, so I found it hard to believe that he was able to physically move around, even in a limited capacity, in order to attend to Nell. My booksellers also pointed out that there is a somewhat unrealistic scene at the end of the book, featuring a helicopter crash. It can be forgiven, if you think about it for a little while, but it does feel a tad extreme.

There’s a reluctant part of me that also thought that the killer’s motivation was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch also. There’s definitely a series of linked events that led to the killers ‘doing what they had to do’, but I think it would be fair to say that it’s erring on the side of tenuous.

That being said, don’t let this put you off The Killing Lessons. There is much more about it that is worthwhile than questionable, and even the questionable parts are still compelling reading.

Is it appropriate to say that I ‘enjoyed’ a novel like The Killing Lessons? Hard to say. It’s probably not a true reflection of the experience I had while reading it. I was too afraid to read it home alone, but it was too compelling not to. I was jumpy and paranoid, looking over my shoulder whenever I went out alone, and gave windowless vans a wide berth when I saw them on the street. It’s not a ‘nice’ experience, reading a novel like this, but it is a memorable one. It’s kind of like Lolita – you read it not for the enjoyment of the story, but to appreciate the fact that mere words on a page can have such an enormous impact on your state of mind.

The Killing Lessons is out on May 7. Order your copy from Pulp Fiction Booksellers, at Blocksidge and Ferguson Arcade on Adelaide Street!

I received an ARC of The Killing Lessons in exchange for an honest review.